Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

Tristia by Ovid

How wretched to live among tribal natives
for him whose name was once a household word.
(Tristia book 4, poem 1, lines 67 and 68)

What I seek is not praise but pardon.
(Tristia book 1, poem 7, line 31)

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
(Tristia, book 3, poem 7, lines 43 and 44)

America-based British academic Peter Green has published an impressive number of books about the ancient world – numerous histories and essays, along with many translations from ancient Greek and Latin.

Among these are two volumes of translations of the Roman poet Ovid for Penguin books: a portmanteau volume titled The Erotic Poems of Ovid, which includes Amores, The Art of Love and The Cure for Love, and this volume, The Poems of Exile, which includes Ovid’s last two works, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’).

These fairly long works (Tristia 103 page, Letters 90 pages) were, as the title suggests, written during Ovid’s 10-year-long and miserable exile at a town called Tomis, on the Black Sea (now the coastal resort of Constanca in Romania).

(Apparently it is important to distinguish between exile (deportatio) – where the banished person lost their Roman citizenship and all their property – and Ovid’s condition, which was the lesser punishment of relegatio, whereby he retained his citizenship and his property – very important for the ongoing life of his wife and daughter back in Rome, see note p.225 among others.

Ovid’s career

Born in 43 BC Ovid was a fluent and prolific poet who made his reputation with a series of books about love, treated in a cynically witty, urbane style:

  • first there was a set of letters supposedly written by women from myth and legend (the Heroides)
  • then the stylish Amores (‘Love poems’) which followed in the line of elegiac love lyrics pioneered by Catullus and developed by Tibullus and Propertius. The Amores were published in 16 BC
  • but most successful, and scandalous, was the Ars Amoris (‘The Art of Love’) which I thought might be a philosophical-moral treatise but turns out to be an extremely cynical, worldly guide to picking up women, preferably married women, for an illicit affair, closer to the world of Tinder and modern pickup artists than Plato or Castiglione. The Ars Amoris was published around 1 BC

Around the age of 40, Ovid made a significant shift in subject matter to produce the vast Metamorphoses, an encyclopedic collection of ancient myths and legends linked by the common topic of physical transformation i.e. tales of men and women who were changed by the gods or magic or fate into flowers, trees, animals, rivers and so on.

The poem contains flattering references to the emperor Augustus (who effectively ruled Rome single handed between 27 BC and his death in 14 AD) and leads up to a description of the apotheosis (conversion into a god) of Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar and then fulsome praise of Augustus himself. Metamorphoses was published in 8 AD.

Ovid was half way through writing a work which contains even more flattering references to Augustus and his extended family, the Fasti, a long poetic account of the Roman calendar which sets out to explain the origins and aspects of Rome’s numerous religious festivals, anniversaries and important dates – when he received an angry summons to the emperor’s personal presence, was given a fierce dressing down and instructed to pack his bags because he was being sent into exile (or to be precise relegatio). He was ordered to go and live in the wretched frontier town of Tomis, in the only partly-pacified province of Moesia, on the coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Romania.

Born in 43 BC, Ovid was 51 in late 8 AD when he was sent into exile.

Ovid’s exile

Why? What had he done which was so outrageous? For the last ten years of his life (8 to 18 AD) Ovid wrote these two books – 50 or so letters in which he pleaded with all his friends back in Rome to beg the emperor to change his mind and rescind his banishment, and 50 or so poems in which he gave poetic expression to the changing moods of an exile. But although he refers to the causes of his exile quite a few times, he never specifies exactly what it was.

To be precise, Ovid attributes his exile to two causes. One was that his recklessly cynical and amoral pickup guide The Art of Love offended against the very serious efforts of Augustus to restore traditional morality among Rome’s aristocracy, particularly when it came to marriage – banning adultery and rewarding fidelity and especially the parenting of children who should be brought up in a traditional, settled married environment. The Art of Love, as a guide to how to start and maintain adulterous affairs, flew straight in the face of everything Augustus was trying to achieve.

But Ovid himself thinks Augustus’s citing of this poem as a cause for exiling him was a smokescreen for a deeper reason. This he refers to repeatedly as his error but, infuriatingly, tells us his lips are sealed and he won’t explain it. For 2,000 years scholars have been forced to speculate.

Political – maybe was present at discussions about a coup to overthrow Augustus; maybe he was a witness to a secret marriage of Julia – either way Ovid’s hints imply that he himself was never part of a conspiracy, never carried out any action: but that he witnessed something and then, apparently, failed to report it.

The Tristia are accessible and enjoyable

I really struggled with Anne and Peter Wiseman’s prose translation of Ovid’s Fasti, several times thinking I’d have to give up reading the work altogether. It was only when I switched to A.S. Kline’s online verse translation that I was able to finish wading through the often very obscure and confusing text.

By contrast Peter Green’s verse translations of the Tristia and The Letters from Pontus are a delight to read. Above all, unlike long sections of the Fasti, it’s obvious what they’re about. Whether he’s describing the long stormy journey by sea to Tomis, or sending his book back to Rome, or praising his wife for her loyalty, or castigating an old friend for abandoning him, or begging Augustus for forgiveness, or saying his frivolous love poetry didn’t deserve to bring such a harsh fate down on their author’s head – the subject matter is obvious and the development of the argument almost always easy to follow.

Peter Green’s translation

This is immensely helped by Peter Green’s fresh, zingy, accessible translation. In fact there are two very strong points about this edition. One is the translation, which has an enjoyably flexible, rolling rhythm about it. The second is Green’s notes. Wiseman’s notes for the Fasti were sensible but fairly brief, restrained, limited. By contrast Green’s notes are almost long as the texts themselves (Tristia text 103 pages, Green’s notes 90 pages).

Green is gloriously unbuttoned, chatty, opinionated, fluent, garrulous. Tristia is divided into 5 books and each book gets a page or so of introduction explaining when it was written, describing Ovid’s changing tone of voice and approach as the books progress.

Then each poem in each book gets a page introduction to itself, before we get onto notes for specific references: these introductions describe what the poem is about, how it differs from other poems or echoes or repeats certain themes, how it riffs off this or that ancient genre or trope. Green freely discusses contemporary history, Ovid’s family relationships, the climate and people of Tomis, the theories of other scholars (for example, whether the poems are arranged in careful order or are more random) and so on, in a buttonholing garrulous manner which I found immensely interesting and entertaining.

And it is all immensely helpful for understanding how the tone and approach of the books changed over the long 10 years during which they were written; at understanding the genres or rhetorical conventions of Latin poetry which they invoke, copy or modify; for understanding the complex matrix of cross references Ovid sets up between them; and, on the simplest bucket level, understanding the historical events, the real historical people or the mythical personages which the poems refer to.

Instead of a set of standalone, isolated factual explications, Green’s notes are more like one vast essay of commentary and explication. His notes are easily as interesting to read as the poems.

Book 1 (11 poems)

1.1 (128 lines)

Little book – no, I don’t begrudge it you – you’re off to the City
without me, going where your only begetter is banned!

This is the envoi to book 1 and addresses the book as a sentient being which he is sending to Rome to argue on his behalf. This was an established literary convention (used by Catullus and Horace among others) but differs from its predecessors in introducing the recurrent theme that the book will argue for forgiveness and an end to his exile.

1.2 (110 lines)

‘You gods of sea and sky’ – what’s left me now but prayer? –
‘Don’t, break up our storm-tossed ship:
don’t, I beseech you, endorse great Caesar’s fury!’

Description of the violent storms which Ovid endured on his journey by ship across the Mediterranean in December 8 AD, with some poking fun at traditional descriptions and epic conventions around describing storms at sea.

1.3 (102 lines)

Nagging reminders: the black ghost-melancholy vision
of my final night in Rome,
the night I abandoned so much I dearly treasured,
to think of it, even now, starts tears…

Ovid paints the scene of his departure from Rome, the weeping and wailing of his servants and family, especially his (third) wife. With typical irony (and mocking epic convention) he compares himself briefly to Aeneas leaving Troy. More to the point he emphasises that his error was a mistake and not a deliberate crime.

1.4 (28 lines)

Dipped now in Ocean, the She-Bear’s stellar guardian
is stirring up stormy seas: yet here am I
constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic…

Another description of his stormy journey, notable for the description of the figurehead of Minerva at the prow of the ship (Roman and Greek vessels carried painted figureheads of gods, to whom the crew prayed if they got into trouble).

1.5 (84 lines)

Friend, henceforth be reckoned the foremost among my comrades,
who, above all others, made your fate your own,
who first, I recall, when the bolt struck, dared to support me
with words of comfort…

Ovid praises the handful of friends who stuck by him when most of his fairweather friends bolted as soon as Augustus’s wrath struck his home. This passage, and Ovid’s plight generally, remind me much of Oscar Wilde’s sudden, fateful reversal of fortune, from talk of the town to almost complete abandonment by all but a handful of real friends:

Before my house’s downfall
visitors thronged the place, I was à la mode
if not ambitious. The first tremor sent them running…

In the second half of the poem Ovid wittily but bitterly compares himself to Ulysses who made a long and painful journey by sea, but the poet uses the extended comparison to bring out obvious differences, namely that Ulysses was a rough tough warrior, whereas Ovid is a sensitive poet unused to rough conditions; and that Ulysses was heading home to his loving wife and family whereas Ovid is heading away from everything that he loves.

1.6 (36 lines)

Not so dear was Lyde to the Clarian poet, not so truly
loved was Bittis by her singer from Cos
as you are deeply entwined, wife, in my heart…

In praise of his wife’s loyalty, including the (repeated so often as to become hackneyed) comparison with Ulysses’ loyal wife, Penelope. It ends with another theme which was to be repeated scores of times, the notion that his exile has killed off his former self, old Ovid is dead, and the old poetic exuberance borne of his high-flying social life is extinguished – but still the old dead suffering ex-poet can still squeeze out a few last lines:

Alas, my verses possess but scanty strength, your virtues
are more than my tongue can proclaim,
and the spark of creative vigour I once commanded
is extinct, killed off by my long
misfortunes. Yet in so far as our words of praise have power
you shall live through these verses for all time.

1.7 (40 lines)

Reader, if you possess a bust made in my likeness,
strip off the Bacchic ivy from its locks!
Such signs of felicity belong to fortunate poets:
on my temples a wreath is out of place.

A poem to a friend who’s stuck by Ovid, but which is really about the condition of the works Ovid leaves behind him in Rome. The poem claims that Ovid threw his copy of the Metamorphoses into the fire, and that it was unfinished, had yet to have a final revision:

…because the poem was still unfinished, still
in rough draft… it lacks my final hand:
a job snatched from me half-done, while still on the anvil,
a draft minus the last touch of the file.

1.8 (50 lines)

A poem of bitter reproach to an old friend who dumped him when trouble struck, scholars identify as the poem Macer, related to Ovid’s third wife, with whom he travelled through Greece and Asia Minor when he was a student. The poem opens with the rhetorical trope called adynaton meaning ‘impossibility’, similar to the modern saying ‘when hell freezes over’.

Back from the sea now, back to their sources shall deep rivers
flow, and the Sun, wheeling his steeds about,
run backward; earth shall bear stars, the plough cleave heaven,
fire shall give forth water, and water flames,
all things shall move contrary to the laws of nature,
no element in the world shall keep its path,
all that I swore impossible will happen now: there’s nothing left
that I can’t believe. This I prophesy after my betrayal by that person
who, I’d believed, would aid me in my distress…

1.9 (66 lines)

Reader, should you peruse this work without malice, may you
cross life’s finishing-line without a spill!

A poem to a faithful friend, notable for reminding friends who hesitate to support him that Augustus has demonstrated a capacity for clemency and respects those who stay loyal to friends and cause, even if they opposed him. Ovid says he wishes now he had never taken up the wretched art of poetry, seeing as where it’s led him. And repeats other recurring tropes: that the cynical amorality of the Ars Amatoria had nothing to do with his own private life which was chaste and faithful; and that it was a joke, a joke for God’s sake.

1.10 (50 lines)

I have (may I always keep!) blonde Minerva’s protection: my vessel
bears her painted casque, borrows her name.

In contrast to the earlier poems about storms at sea, this is a poem in praise of the good ship Minerva which brought him to a harbour in eastern Greece where they docked, Ovid unloaded and continued his journey by land, but the second half of the poem is an envisioning of the voyage back the ship will take, studded with famous placenames and historical references and calling down blessings on the good ship Minerva.

1.11 (44 lines)

Every word you’ve read in this whole book was written
during the anxious days
of my journey: scribbling lines in mid-Adriatic
while December froze the blood…

A poem highlighting the contrast between the lazy peaceful couch on which he composed his great works back in Rome, and the storm-tossed ship on which he tried to write poems on the blustery, brine-drenched journey East.

If these lines fall short – as they do –
of your hope: they were not written, as formerly, in my garden,
while I lounged on a favourite day-bed, but at sea,
in wintry light, rough-tossed by filthy weather, spindrift
spattering the paper as I write.

Book 2 (578 lines)

Book 2 stands out because instead of a set of 10 or so shorter poems it is one longer poem of 578 lines. Green cites earlier scholars who consider the poem a suasoria, meaning:

Suasoria is an exercise in rhetoric: a form of declamation in which the student makes a speech which is the soliloquy of an historical figure debating how to proceed at a critical junction in his life. (Wikipedia)

Or maybe a legal argument, to be presented in court. It consists of:

  1. the exordium – attempt to placate the judge (Augustus) (lines 1 to 26)
  2. the propositio – outlining the speaker’s aim (27 to 28)
  3. the tractatio – the handling or treatment in which the case is unfolded at length (29 to 578); this can be sub-divided into:
    1. probatio or proof of evidence (29 to 154)
    2. epilogus 1 or first conclusion, entering a plea for mitigation of sentence
    3. refutatio or rebuttal of the charge (Ovid argues that his poetry never corrupted anyone because to the pure all things are pure and to the corrupt, anything is corrupt) (207 to 572)
    4. epilogus 2 or second conclusion, again calling for clemency

In other words, even more than

Book 3 (15 poems)

These poems were composed in 9 to 10 AD. The first excitement of the journey into exile, undertaken in December 8 AD and vividly described in book 1, is over. He has spent one winter in Tomis and now knows the role freezing bitter cold is going to play in his life. And it is dawning on him that this exile isn’t for a year or so, isn’t a game which will come to an end – but is the bitter condition for the rest of his days.

3.1 (82 lines)

‘I’m an exile’s book. He sent me. I’m tired. I feel trepidation
approaching his city – kind reader, lend a hand.’

Book 3 poem 1 repeats the conceit of book 1 poem 1 in conceiving the book as envoy except that whereas in book 1 Ovid had been outside the book, sending it as the author, this poem speaks in the voice of the book itself. This allows the book itself to find its way through Rome in order to seek out readers, a library to stay in, and the palace of the great Augustus (who, for the umpteenth time, Ovid begs for forgiveness). In so doing, the poem provides an interesting and historically useful guide to the layout of the Rome of his day. He is as conscious as ever of the role the Ars Amoria plays in his personal disaster, something so well known that he has his book tell anyone encountering not to fear:

‘Have no fear: I won’t turn out an embarrassment to you:
no instructions about love, not one page,
not a syllable. So bleak my master’s misfortunes, he shouldn’t
try to camouflage them with light verse,
though that sport of his green years, that frivolous disaster
he now – too late, alas! – detests and condemns.
See what I bring you’ll find nothing here but lamentation,
verse matching its circumstances…’

The book’s tour of Rome, appropriately, at Asinius Pollio’s library

3.2 (30 lines)

So it was my destiny to travel as far as Scythia,
that land lying below the Northern pole,
and neither you, Muses, not you, Leto’s son Apollo,
cultured crowd though you are, gave any help
to your own priest…

Ovid makes the theme clear: he is a soft poet, not used to a hard life (‘an escapist, born for leisured comfort’), his erotic poetry was a joke, a pose, he was never a libertine in real life (‘my poetry’s more wanton than my life’). But now all that’s dead and gone.

The journey to Tomis was so stormy and colourful it helped to distract him from the misery of exile, even inspired him a bit. But now the hard fact of exile has hit him and his existence has settled into a monotonous drudge – it’s cold, it’s boring and it’s dangerous. Now ‘weeping is my only pleasure’. Now he yearns for death.

In the poem he knocks at the door of his own sepulchre door, which he finds stubbornly shut against him. (Green makes the typically illuminating comment that this is an inversion of the trope of the paraclausithyron, the image of the poet keeping watch morosely outside the locked door of his beloved, well established in the elegiac tradition and which Ovid had himself used in the Amores.

3.3 (88 lines)

If perhaps you’re wondering why this letter’s drafted
by another’s hand, I’ve been, am, sick,
sick, and at the unmapped world’s remotest limits,
scarce certain of my survival.

Ovid is ill and depressed. He lists the tribulations of exile: cold climate, impure water, depressing landscape, no proper housing, bad diet, no doctors to treat his illness, no friends’ conversation to distract him. He addresses his wife, swearing she’s the only woman he thinks about, he said her name during the delirium of his illness. He imagines his death. He writes his own epitaph.

3.4A (lines 1 to 46)

Ah friend, my dear care as always, though in harsh circumstances
first truly assayed, after my world’s collapse,
if you’ve any respect for the lessons experience has taught me,
live for yourself, keep far from all great names…

A poem to an unnamed friend, advising him to live a discrete, retired life, not to make grand acquaintances, not to fly too high lest, like poor Ovid, he be blasted by Jove’s thunderbolt. (The comparisons of Augustus with Jupiter, and the decision to exile Ovid falling on him like the god’s thunderbolt, appear in virtually all the poems, quickly becoming a part of their standardised litany of complaint.) He warns his friend to:

Live without rousing envy, enjoy years of undistinguished
ease and delight…

3.4B (lines 47 to 78)

A region that neighbours the polar constellations
imprisons me now, land seared by crimping frost…

The poem begins by lamenting the frozen waste he finds himself in, such that Rome and its familiar landscapes now linger on only in his memory. Next to them, his wife, whose image haunts him. And then his loyal friends. He asks them not to forget him, to do what they can to lend a hand to his cause.

3.5 (56 lines)

Our friendship was new and slight: you could have denied it
without any trouble. (You’d have not, I think,
embraced me more closely had my vessel been driven
on by a favouring wind.)

While some of his old friends have abandoned him, the (unnamed) addressee of this poem stuck by him despite being a new acquaintance. Ovid thanks and praises him, then asks that he use his eloquence to argue his cause before the emperor.

Again and again and again Ovid insists he did no wrong, he merely witnessed something and failed to report it: he committed no crime except simply having eyes. Here there’s one of the longest passages describing this, 10 lines of exculpation, emphasising that he committed an error but – as he repeats just as often – shying away from explaining the nature of this ‘error’. God, I can see why it’s driven 2,000 years of scholars mad with frustration.

3.6 (38 lines)

The bond of friendship between us, carissimo, you neither
wish to dissimulate, nor could if you so wished…

To his best friend, praising his loyalty, saying he’s shared everything with him – except the nature of the ‘offence’ which got him banished. If he’d shared it, his friend would have joined him in exile, indicating what a toxically powerful secret it must have been.

He repeats the claim that he, Ovid, didn’t do anything, merely witnessed something – so that it’s his eyes which are to blame. He says that even to hint at his crime would be ‘great risk’. He says it is better buried in deepest night. He asks his friend to help and intercede on his behalf with angry Jupiter.

3.7 (54 lines)

Go quickly, scribbled letter, my loyal mouthpiece,
and greet Perilla for me. Her you’ll find
either sitting in the company of her sweet mother
or among her books and poems…

A sweet and touching poem to his step-daughter, Perilla (his wife’s daughter by an earlier husband), now a young woman. Surprisingly, it turns out that she is a poet too, her talent spotted and nurtured by her dad. They often read their poems to each other. He praises her and tells her, if she’s worried about his fate, that she’ll be fine so long as she doesn’t set out to teach anyone about love (Ovid’s writing of The Art of Love having been given out as the official reason for his banishment).

It ends with a triumphant assertion of the supremacy and triumph of art. Age may wither her, the emperor’s punishment has blasted him – everything can be taken from them, and yet:

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
Look at me – I’ve lost my home, the two of you, my country,
they’ve stripped me of all they could take,
yet my talent remains my joy, my constant companion:
over this, Caesar could have no rights…

Caesar will die, yet so long as Rome exists, Ovid will be read. It must have been an optimistic claim, made to keep his spirits up and yet, 2,000 years later, amazingly… it’s true!

3.8 (42 lines)

Now I wish I were high aloft in the car of Triptolemus
who flung the untried seed on virgin soil…

He wishes for the paraphernalia of various mythological figures so he can fly back to Rome, then pulls himself up short. Fool! Instead of old legends he should be petitioning the real Augustus in the here and now. If not to end his exile at least to move him somewhere else. The wretched climate, the lack of all amenities and civilised companionship is sapping his spirit, making him ill. God, why didn’t Augustus just kill him outright and be done with it?

3.9 (34 lines)

Here too, then, there are – who would credit it? – Greek cities
among the wild place-names of barbary: here too
colonists, sent out from Miletus, founded Greek outposts
on Getic soil…

An aetiological poem i.e. one which explains a modern custom, practice or place name in terms of a myth or legend. In this case Ovid derives the name of his exile town, Tomis, from the old story that the witch Medea, having fled her homeland, saw the sail of the ship of her father, Aeëtes, approaching and, in panic, conceived a plan to delay him so she could make a getaway. The plan? To rip to shreds her brother and scatter his body parts about the shore, thus forcing her father to collect them together for a proper funeral pyre. In Latin the (false) etymology relates tomé, a noun meaning the act of chopping up, with Tomis.

Green’s notes tell us that a) aetiological poems were a speciality of the Hellenistic poet, Callimachus (305 to 240 BC) and b) Roman aetiological poems almost always get the etymology and derivation of words wrong. Odd that we, 2,000 years later, know more about their customs and, especially their language, than they did.

3.10 (78 lines)

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid, if my
name survives in the City now I’m gone,
let him know that beneath those stars that never dip in Ocean
I live now in mid-barbary, hemmed about
by wild Sarmatians, Bessi, Getae, names unworthy
of my talent!

A long vivid poem giving a rare description of what Tomis was actually like, or the landscape around it. To be precise Ovid focuses on the bitter freezing winter weather and the way the many mouths of the river Danube which enter the Black Sea close to the town freeze over. Not only that but the sea itself freezes: he knows, he’s walked on frozen waves.

But it’s worse, it’s not just that it’s cold: normally the river acts as a barrier against barbarian tribes but when it freezes they can ride over it and raid nearby villages. Some peasants flee, leaving their farms and possessions to be looted by the raiders. Some are shackled and led off to slavery. Some die in agony because the raider’s sharp arrowheads are dipped in poison. What they can’t steal, the barbarians burn to the ground.

3.11 (74 lines)

Whoever you are, vile man, who scoff at my misfortunes,
and with bloody zeal fling charges at me – you
were born from the rocks, by wild beasts’ udders nurtured
with flints, I’ll swear, in your breast…

A bitter recrimination against some (unnamed) enemy who is bad mouthing and savaging his character back in Rome. Why make a miserable man more miserable? Ovid laments the coldness, the isolation, he can’t speak the natives’ language, he suffered cruelly on the journey out, now he lives in terror of the violent tribesmen. O vile calumniator, why hit an unfortunate man when he’s down?

3.12 (54 lines)

West winds now ease the cold: at the year’s closure
a longer-than-ever winter must yield at last,
while the Ram (that bore Helle – and dropped her) now equalises
the hours of darkness and light…

March 10 AD. The first half of the poem is a vivid celebration of the sights and sounds of spring back in Rome and the Italian countryside, spring flowers, children playing in the fields, men exercising, the roar of crowds at the theatre.

Then the volta or ‘turn’ to contrast his sad isolated existence. For Ovid Spring means the very slow thaw of the ice, some water runs a bit free in the cistern. Wine left outside no longer freezes solid in the bottle. The Danube flows again and the Black Sea becomes navigable and so, once in a blue moon, a ship may arrive from Rome and Ovid will avidly question the captain for even the slightest scraps of gossip which can, for a moment, revive his link to his long-lost homeland.

3.13 (28 lines)

My birthday god’s here again, on time – and superfluous:
what good did I get from being born?
Cruel spirit, why come to increase this wretch’s years of exile?
You should rather have cut them short…

The Greeks considered the genethliakon or ‘birthday poem’ a genre in its own right, with its own rules and stock imagery. It’s here to mark Ovid’s birthday. He was born on 20 March 43 BC so, if this poem was written in 10 AD, he was 53.

But Ovid deliberately reverses all the conventions of the birthday poem. For example, he curses the birth god (the natalis) who oversaw his birth. It would have been more merciful to have let him die as a baby, or never be born at all, rather than endure this misery. Instead of the customary toga and ritual thanksgivings on his birthday, he’d prefer an altar of death.

3.14 (52 lines)

Patron and reverend guardian of men of letters, you always
befriended my talent – but what’s your attitude now?
In the days before my downfall you used to promote me –
and today?

Scholars consider the addressee of this poem to have been Caius Julius Hyginus, director of the Palatine library, patron of young poets, and a close friend in the old days back in Rome. The poem echoes the themes of books and libraries announced in poem 3.1, in other words they form bookends ti the volume.

Ovid hopes Hyginus is still supportive of his work. Books are like children, they can remain behind in the city even when the father is exiled. Ovid refers to the fact that his erotic poems (The Art of LiveThe Cure For Love) have been banned and removed from all libraries, but hopes the others are read.

Interestingly, he is at pains to emphasise that the Metamorphoses was left unfinished (a claim which consciously or unconsciously compares him with Virgil’s famously unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid).

Then he turns to the present book, ‘a missive from the world’s end’, and asks Hyginus to be indulgent and remember the context of its writing: Ovid fears his talent has withered, he has forgotten his Latin, here in a place surrounded by barbarian tongues and threatened every day with violent attack, he worries all his stylishness has been rubbed off him. Please make allowances.

Book 4 (10 poems)

4.1 (106 lines)

Whatever defects there may be – and there will be – in these poems,
hold them excused, good reader, by the times
in which they were written. An exile, I was seeking solace,
not fame…

In the envoi to book 4 Ovid asks the reader’s indulgence, and to consider the miserable exile. His only true and steadfast companion is his Muse. He tells us how slaves, chained rowers, slave girls, manual labourers, sing songs to pass the time, as did the legendary figures Orpheus and even Achilles, sulking in his tent.

And so Ovid in exile. He ought to curse the avocation which led him to write the love guide which led to his downfall, but he can’t: he’s hooked. Writing transports him away from his miserable situation, drugs him, like the potions which numbed the lotus eaters.

What is he drugging himself from? The horrible situation of living in a walled defensive town liable to attack at any moment from barbarian tribes. He describes the way the way the alarm goes and he has to buckle on a sword although he’s 60 years old! He repeats the description of the way the raiders capture, shackle and lead off to slavery local farmers, or just shoot them with poisoned arrows and leave them to die.

Once again he laments that there is no-one at all to read his poems to who will understand them let alone appreciate them. Sometimes he waters the paper with his tears. Sometimes he crunches them up and throws them in the fire. What has survived he presents in this book and craves our indulgence.

4.2 (74 lines)

Already fierce Germany, like all the world, confronted
by the Caesars, may well have bent her knee
in surrender…

He imagines the full panoply of celebrations surrounding what he assumes must be Tiberius’s victories in Germany, including the sacrifices in temples and the great public triumphant procession through Rome, all under the guiding vision of beneficent Augustus.

The poem switches to meditate on the process of imagination itself, by which he is imagining and visualising all this, for his imagination, his mind’s eye, can go where he, alas, never again can.

4.3 (84 lines)

He asks the stars of the new constellation to turn their eyes upon his wife, ‘sweetest of wives’. He hopes she is missing him. Then addresses her directly and asks a series of rhetorical questions itemising her grief (when she looks at his untouched pillow in their marital bed, does she weep?)

Yet, to be honest, he wishes he had died. Then she would have something simple and pure to weep over, instead of his agonising shame, and the fact that he lives, but forever inaccessible to her. She supported him and was so proud of his achievements, for so long. Please don’t be ashamed of him, now. Defend him. Intercede for him.

4.4 (88 lines)

O you who with your high birth and ancestral titles
in nobility of character still outshine
your clan, whose mind mirrors your father’s brilliance
while retaining a brilliance all your own…

An appeal to Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus, the eldest son of Ovid’s patron (recently deceased), Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sings Valerius’s praises but as the poem proceeds it becomes clear he never really knew the boy and is trying to curry favour because of the connection with his (now dead) father.

This leads Ovid into embarrassed contortions, and apologies, before going on to the usual litany of self-exculpation (‘it wasn’t a crime, it was an error‘) before begging Valerius to intervene with Augustus to ask for his exile to be, if not revoked, that at least he be moved somewhere better, safer from raids by barbarians, hot for blood and plunder, some of whom are cannibals.

4.5 (34 lines)

A sycophantic poem addressed to Messalinus’s younger brother, Marcus Valerius Cotta Maximus although, as with all the Tristia the addressee is not explicitly named – because Ovid knew it would do nobody any good to be associated with his disgrace, his exile, his crime. This young man was loaded and well connected. Ovid politely, discreetly, begs for his help.

Do what you safely can: rejoice in your heart that I’m mindful
of you, that you’ve been loyal to me; still bend,
as now, to your oars to bring me succour…

4.6 (50 lines)

Believe me I’m failing; to judge from my physical condition
I’d say my troubles have a scant
future remaining – I lack my old strength and colour,
there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones;
yet sick though my body is, my mind is sicker
from endless contemplation of its woes…
(lines 39 to 44)

Two winters have passed (of 9 and 10 AD) so scholars think this poem was written in 11. Ovid is tired, worn down, sick in mind and body, and has one hope left – ‘that my troubles may be soon cut short by death’.

4.7 (26 lines)

Twice has the Sun approached me after the chills of icy
winter, twice rounded his journey off
through the sign of the fish.

The sign of the Fish enters the Sun in February so scholars date this poem to 11 AD. Ovid reproaches a dear old friend (unnamed like all the addressees of these poems) for not writing to him, hoping he has written, but that the letters have got lost on the long, fraught journey to the outer reaches of the empire.

4.8 (52 lines)

Already my temples are mimicking swans’ plumage,
and hoary age bleaching my once-dark hair;
already the frail years are on me, the age of inertia,
already my infirm self fins life too hard…

He has grown old. Ships, racehorses, charioteers, old soldiers, all these get to be pensioned off – why not an old poet? Why can’t an old poet be set free from his miserable exile and allowed to return?

At my time of life I shouldn’t be breathing this alien
air, or easing my thirst at Getic wells,
but dividing my days between those peaceful country gardens
I once possessed, and the pleasures of human life,
the human round…

4.9 (32 lines)

Ovid is ferociously angry with an unnamed enemy who has been bad-mouthing the powerless poet back in Rome. Ovid calls down vengeance on him – ‘then luckless sorrow will perforce take arms’ – and promises that his angry words will travel the world and last for generations to come – as they, indeed, did.

Although
I’m sequestered on this wasteland where the northern stars circle
high and dry above my gaze, nevertheless
my clarion message will go forth to countless peoples,
my complaint shall be known world-wide;
whatever I say shall be heard, across deep waters;
my lamentation shall find a mighty voice.

4.10 (132 lines)

This is the best known of all the 100 or so exilic poems for the simple reason that it is a versified autobiography, detailing Ovid’s early life and career, his decision to choose poetry and art over a career in public service, then the inevitable story of his erotic poetry – emphasising, as always, the clear distinction between his promiscuous poetry and his respectable personal life. And then on to his notorious ‘error’ and so into exile.

He dwells on the deaths of his elder brother, which left him maimed. Later the deaths of his father then mother, and he thinks them lucky to have led long blameless lives. Maybe from Elysium they can hear him when he assures them (for the umpteenth time) that his exile was caused by an error not a crime.

When a youth the older poets were like gods to him. Old Macer read him his latest poems. Propertius and he had ‘a close-binding comradeship between us’. Horace, ‘that metrical wizard’, held them spellbound to the sound of the lyre. Virgil he only saw, never spoke to. Tibullus died young, before he could make his acquaintance. He thinks of the elegiac poets as being, in chronological order, Gallus (whose entire oeuvre is lost), Tibullus, Propertius then himself (interesting that he doesn’t mention Catullus).

He lists his three marriages, the first wife ‘worthless and useless’, the second wife died young, and now his long third marriage. His daughter makes him a grandfather. He is growing old when the thunderbolt falls, and he is sent into exile.

The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin
must not be revealed through testimony of mine.

After a long and gruelling journey (again and again he compares himself to Ulysses) he arrives in his wretched place of exile and now, his only remaining solace is writing poems, when he can. Again, he repeats the idea that everything else is lost, but his talent, his gift, and the Muse which brings it, remain.

Book 5 (15 poems)

Yet another Black Sea booklet
to add to the four I’ve already sent!

The fifth and final book of Tristria is different in tone from the previous four, more resigned, more limited in ambition, with less zest and irony. More tetchy, irritated, and desperate. Only one poem is descriptive (i.e describes Tomis). The other 13 are all addressed to specific individuals, half of them to his wife (more than in the previous four books put together) begging them all to get Augustus to revoke his exile or, at least, assign him somewhere warmer, safer and closer to Rome.

His references and analogies become increasingly repetitive. In every single poem he repeats that he did nothing wrong, he committed no bloodshed, it was a simple ‘error’, he merely witnessed something by accident, by mistake.

In every poem Augustus is compared to Jupiter (reasonably enough). Ovid repeatedly compares himself to Capaneus, one of the heroes of the war against Thebes who, as he led the attack on one of the city’s gates shouted that not even Jupiter could stop him now, so Jupiter promptly zapped him with a thunderbolt.

Or to Philoctetes, suffering from a wound which would never heal, for ten long years abandoned on the inhospitable island of Lemnos.

5.1 (80 lines)

I don’t correct these poems, let them be read as written:
they’re no more barbarous than their place of birth.

He warns his reader that this is not a book of sexy, frivolous poems as by Gallus, Tibullus or Propertius. They are grim and bleak, like his circumstances: ‘A dirge best fits a living death’.

He imagines a critical reader wondering why he’s bothering to write such depressing poems, and defends it as a form of crying out in pain, an action he then defends by giving half a dozen mythological examples of legendary figures crying out in unendurable pain.

He defends his erotic poetry against the charge of immorality by pointing out the only person who ever suffered because of it was him.

(Green makes the droll point that, alone of all the Augustan poets Ovid was singled out for immorality therefore undermining Augustus’s reforming legislation about marriage; and yet, as far as we know, Ovid was the only one of the famous poets to be married: neither Virgil (gay), Horace (promiscuous bachelor), nor Propertius were.)

5.2 (78 lines)

To his wife, increasingly desperate, sick and depressed.

It’s a barbarous land that now holds me, earth’s final outpost,
a place ringed by savage foes.

He accuses his wife of not putting herself out as she should on his behalf. Has she deserted him, like everyone else? He tells her to approach the emperor directly. If she won’t then he will and at line 45 the poem changes to a hymn of praise to Augustus. All the double-edged irony and wit which you can discern in the earlier references to Augustus has evaporated. Now he is on his knees, spouting extravagantly excessive praise and openly begging.

O glory, O image of the country that flourishes through you,
O hero to match the very sphere you rule.

He says it’s not the cold, nor the lack of culture among a people none of whom speak Latin, it’s the fear of attack by uncivilised barbarians, living in a small settlement protected only by one low wall, that he’s seen fighting at close quarters, that he lives in constant anxiety and insecurity. He begs Augustus to move him to some less terrifying place of exile.

5.3 (58 lines)

A poem celebrating Bacchus, god of wine, on his feast day, the Liberalia, 17 March (described in Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, the Fasti) then asking him to intercede with Augustus.

5.4 (50 lines)

From the Black Sea’s shore I have come, a letter of Ovid’s,
wearied by sea-travel, wearied by the road.
Weeping he told me: ‘See Rome, for you it’s not forbidden –
alas, how better far your lot than mine!’

Ovid repeats the conceit of having the poem speak in the first person as a letter, all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the (unnamed) recipient in Rome, a letter able to go where he, alas, cannot, sealed with a signet ring wet with his tears.

But he emphasises that he accepts he was wrong, accepts punishment, like a broken horse doesn’t strain against the leash. He just wishes the great god who punished him will show mercy.

The letter rehearses Ovid’s grievances and bitter experiences before going on to describe the addressee as his best friend, remembering how he stuck by him when almost everyone else abandoned him, how he visited Ovid and wept and tried to console him for his sad fate.

5.5 (64 lines)

A poem to his wife. It’s her birthday so he describes going through the rituals to celebrate a birthday, namely wearing a white toga, building an altar from turf, hanging a woven wreath, lighting a fire and sprinkling wine and incense on it. He sends her a fleet of good wishes, may she have a long untroubled life. He says she has a strength of character to match Penelope or Andromache, she is a paragon of ‘uprightness, chastity, faithfulness’.

He introduces a series of classical comparisons with the thought that all those famous women from antiquity were famous because of their husband’s suffering and their loyalty – Andromache, Penelope, Evadne (wife of the recurring figure of Capaneus, blasted by Jupiter), Alcestis, Laodamia.

But she doesn’t deserve to be famous for her husband’s suffering and her share of it, and so the poem ends with a plea to Augustus to forgive him, for his wife’s sake if not his own.

5.6 (46 lines)

Poem to an unnamed friend. Ovid recriminates the friend for dropping him, now he’s in trouble, now he’s become a ‘burden’. Ovid compares him unfavourably to a raft of mythological figures famous for their loyalty. For the umpteenth time he invokes a familiar set of similes to indicate the sheer number of woes he suffers, as numerous as reeds which soak sodden ditches, or bees on Mount Hybla (famous for its honey), or ants carrying grains to their nest, or grains of sand on the seashore, or ears of wheat in a field.

5.7A (lines 1 to 24)

A short letter to an unnamed friend in which he describes himself as wretchedly miserable and gives a rare description of the native inhabitants, great hordes of tribal nomads, Sarmatians, Getae, hogging the road on their horses, each bearing a bow and quiver full of poisoned arrows, fierce faces, harsh voices, shaggy hair and beards, quick to argue and stab each other with the knives in their belts.

These are the people Ovid lives among, the elegant esteem he won for his light love verses back in Rome long, long forgotten and irrelevant in this harsh environment and violent, illiterate society.

5.7B (lines 25 to 68)

Some scholars divide the poem in two, because this second half switches from describing the grim natives of Tomis and whirls us back to Rome where he hears that his poems are now recited and applauded on the stage (the translator, Peter Green, speculates that this is for the pantomimi where an actor declaimed verses while dancers danced; sounds like ballet).

He curses his poetry which got him into such trouble, and yet he has nothing else. Here in this windswept waste amid violent, illiterate tribals, writing poetry is the only consolation he has, the only last slender link with distant Rome and his former life.

Then about language: not a single person in Tomis speaks Latin, none. Some speak a very debased form of Greek, legacy of when the town was founded centuries ago by Greeks. But most speak only the local tribal tongues. When he talks to anyone it is in pidgen-Sarmatian. He worries not only that he’s lost his style, in the absence of Latin speakers to listen to and comment on his poems – he worries that he’s forgetting Latin. And so he spends his time conversing with himself and doing writing exercises and writing these poems, holding at bay the collapse of his language skills and talent.

Thus I drag out my life and time, thus
tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes.
Through writing I seek an anodyne to misery: if my studies
win me such a reward, that is enough.

5.8 (38 lines)

Angry poem to an unnamed person who has been spreading malicious lies about him, a ‘vile wretch’ than whom no-one is lower. Once again Ovid curses this person, then emphasises the non-criminal nature of his error, praises the emperor’s clemency (hoping against hope), and hopes for the end of his exile and recall.

The early part of the poem is an interesting invocation of the goddess Fortune, whose wheel is always turning, and Nemesis, ‘hot for revenge’. Ovid says he has certainly been brought from the pinnacle of fame to miserable exile, but what makes his unnamed critic so confident the same thing won’t happen to him?

For Ovid hopes that Augustus will apply his mercy and recall him, at which point the critic will be amazed to see his face, one day, in Rome and then Ovid knows things which will secure that his critic is sent into exile!

5.9 (38 lines)

A poem to a friend who stayed loyal, Ovid claims more or less the only friend who stayed loyal and so he wishes he could a) name him (but that is forbidden for the friend’s own safety), b) devote every poem he ever writes in future to his friend’s praise.

The poem is factually interesting because it (unconsciously) brings to the fore the thought that whatever Ovid did (his notorious error) may actually have merited death. Therefore his relegatio already exemplified Augustus’s mercy, and that this may account for why no further mercy(i.e. relenting and letting Ovid return; even moving his place of exile to somewhere less inhospitable) may have been impossible for Augustus.

Behind all this is the most common interpretation of his fate which is that it was tied to something he saw being enacted in favour of Julia and her so-called ‘party’, meaning the aide of the extended Augustan family which wanted the succession to pass to a male on her side of the family.

Tiberius had had two sons by Julia, Augustus’s daughter – Gaius and Lucius, who died in 4 and 2 AD, respectively. Agrippa Postumus, Julia’s son by her first husband, Agrippa, had been unadopted and exiled in 7 AD. Julia herself was sent into exile in 8 AD, the same year as Ovid, ostensibly for immorality and widespread adultery, though conspiracy theorists from that day to this speculate that she was involved in some kind of plan to overthrow Augustus and replace the heir apparent with someone from her side of the family, or possibly a male contender who she married in the hypothetical secret marriage that Ovid hypothetically witnessed or knew about but didn’t report.

Both the Roman historians, Cassius Dio and Suetonius refer to a series of plots in the final years of Augustus’s rule, the most serious in the spring or early summer of 8 AD. Green thinks Ovid’s error was some kind of passive involvement in one of these (note p.212).

Thus the speculation engendered by Ovid’s frustrating failure, in over 100 poems of exile, to spell out what his offence was.

If it was a secret marriage, or a vow, or some kind of ceremony binding the Julia party, this explains the unremitting opposition to Ovid of the man who emerged during these years as the (reluctant) heir apparent, Tiberius, and of his scheming mother, Augustus’s second wife, Livia.

If Ovid’s error had somehow proved him sympathetic to the Julia party then not only was this the reason for his relegatio but explains why Livia made quite sure that Augustus, even if he contemplated mercy, never enacted it. And that when Tiberius came to power in 14 AD, Ovid stood no chance.

It explains why Ovid never mentions Tiberius in any of the 100 exile poems, but does mention Germanicus and Drusus, heirs in the Julian line. (Indeed, in exile Ovid reworked the first book of the unfinished Fasti to introduce a new dedication to Germanicus, Tiberius’s nephew, who Augustus had forced him to adopt in 4 AD – presumably in the hope that he would intercede with Augustus.)

It explains something which comes over in the notes – though not explicitly in the poems – which is that his friends back in Rome, in varying degrees, saw the way the wind was blowing, saw that Tiberius’s rise to power was becoming unstoppable, and so shifted allegiance to the coming man.

For all his contacts back in Rome, then, defending Ovid not only risked angering the old and visibly ailing emperor Augustus, but alienating the new master.

5.10 (52 lines)

Ovid tells his addressee he’s been in Tomis for 3 winters, watching the Danube freeze over. He ponders time: has time in general slowed down or is it only for him? In which case, is time subjective? (Well, the experience of it obviously is).

Once again he laments his location and, above all, the endless threat from marauding tribes whose only language is rape and pillage and the feeble defences (a good defensive site and a low wall) which is all that stands between Tomis and violent death. Their poisoned arrows litter the streets. Farmers dare not farm for they will be raided at any moment. Over half the population of the town are tribals, their chest-length hair, their shaggy bears, their trousers, fill him with loathing.

He knows that the townspeople regard him as the outsider, the oddity, with his soft hands and strange foreign language. Here he is the barbarian. OK, he admits, maybe it was right for him to be exiled…but to a place like this? It is cruel.

5.11 (30 lines)

The poem starts out feeling terribly sorry for his wife who, he’s learned, has been called ‘the wife of an exile’ as a deliberate insult. He grieves at the shame he’s brought upon her and tells her to be steadfast.

Then he switches, for the umpteenth time, to consider his fate. He does this to try and console his wife by making a fine legal distinction, namely that the emperor could have had him a) executed or b) fully exiled (deportatio), deprived of all rights and Roman citizenship. Instead Ovid was c) given the milder punishment of relegatio and so has retained life and estates and civil rights; to that extent, the emperor showed clemency, a punishment fitting his error, not a crime. To that extent the bastard who called his wife ‘the wife of an exile’ was wrong. So there! Little comfort, the modern reader might feel, to his lonely, distant wife.

Then in a move which feels pitifully grovelling, Ovid turns to praising the emperor, claiming his decision was just and mild, and that is why he devotes his poems to praising him:

Rightly then, Caesar, and to the very best of their powers
my poems (such as they are) proclaim your praise…

But if the interpretation that Ovid had seen something (as he repeatedly says, he didn’t do anything, his error was simply to witness, to see something) which somehow linked him with the Julia party, implicated him in a secret marriage or plan or collaboration which, in effect, was a conspiracy against the emperor and his chosen successor, Tiberius – if this was the case then it’s sadly obvious to the reader that absolutely no amount of grovellingly sycophantic hymns to Augustus would ever change Ovid’s plight. And they didn’t

5.12 (68 lines)

Reply to a friend who appears to have told him to buck up and write poems. Ovid sullenly replies there are two kinds of poems, the best ones, the real ones, require happiness and peace of mind to emerge, as inspiration (a commonplace of Roman poetry also mentioned by Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal among others). Here, in the grim outback, surrounded by barbarian tribesmen, the best he can do is squeeze out these exile elegies which are, in reality, mere vehicles for his complaints and grievances.

As to cheering up, should Priam have had fun fresh from his son’s funeral, should Niobe have held a party after all her children were killed?

Chief among the Forces undermining the peace of mind needed for composition are fear, constant fear of attack and violent death. Beside, long rusting has eaten away his talent. He is a field that’s been long unploughed and returned to stones and weeds. He is a rowboat kept out of the water that has cracked and rotting. So that explains the poor quality of the poems he now sends to Rome, such as this one itself.

Finally, a young poet is fired by ambition for renown, to be famous, numbered among the immortals. Now all that has soured to nothing. Now he wishes to be unknown, never to have been famous. His poems got him into this mess. He bitterly blames the Muses for ever inspiring him.

No-one in his remote outpost, a place of savage jabber and animal outcry’, even understands Latin, let alone the wonderful refinements and tricks he brought to it. Lastly, he admits his inspiration does still drive him to write – but he still has his standards and most of it ends up in the fire. Only ‘scraps of my efforts’, such as this very poem, survive because they have a practical purpose.

[What, 2,000 years of fans and scholars have wondered, were those poems he consigned to the flames about and how good were they? Unless this is another trope, developed solely for literary purposes, to illustrate his feelings of disgust and failure, just as he claims to have consigned his own draft of the Metamorphoses to the flames in 1.7. (note p.214)]

5.13 (34 lines)

Of all the Tristia poems this one is most like a letter in format, starting with the standard salutation (‘Good health and greetings from Ovid in his outback’) ending with the standard ‘Farewell’. In between the short poem addresses a loyal friend, possessed of ‘oak-touch loyalty’, complaining that:

  • he’s sick, the mental illness has penetrated his body, to give him a searing pain in his side (Green and scholars suspect pleurisy, triggered by the freezing climate)
  • this friend doesn’t send him enough letters to alleviate his bleak isolation

Ovid hopes the friend has not forgotten him, it’s merely the errancy of the postal service not delivering the letters. He remembers their many happy conversations, talking late into the night. Now letters between them can recreate that intimacy and intelligence. Please write.

5.14 (46 lines)

The final poem in the volume is to his wife, ‘dearer to me than myself’. It’s odd because it defines her, praises her, for sharing his suffering; it is this, her role as wife to a famous poet and tragic figure, which will make her immortal, just like Penelope, Andromache and Alcestis, Evadne and Laodameia.

To be good when there are no tribulations is easy; but to be faithful, as she has been, after the wreck of a god’s thunderbolts, ‘that is true married love/that’s loyalty indeed.’

He praises her continually and now – the poem veers in subject matter – wants her to return his devotion by appealing on his behalf. It is a sincere love poem, and that he ends the entire book with it is moving – even though a modern critic, particularly feminist, may find it objectionable, the extent to which he defines his wife solely in relationship to him. But then, he was in a dire situation.

Terms of rhetoric

Green is chatty, loquacious, garrulous, sprinkling his introductions and notes with foreign phrases (not just Latin – French and the like), references to modern poets (T.S Eliot crops up a lot [pages 217, 220, 224], so we can deduce he is an influence on Green’s translating style) and mention of ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical devices. These always interest me but I have a terrible memory for them. So here’s an (incomplete) list:

  • adynaton – a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility: ‘pigs will fly’ (note p.216)
  • apologia – a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct
  • chiasmus – (‘to shape like the letter Χ’) reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses – but no repetition of words: ‘By day the frolic, and the dance by night’
  • circumlocution – the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; in ancient poetry it refers to poets’ habit of referring to people in terms of their relationships to someone else (‘the son of…’, ‘the wife of…’ etc) or to a place (‘the Phrygian hero’); this can often make ancient poetry difficult to read – it’s particularly common in Ovid’s Fasti which is why I found it such a demanding read (note p.219)
  • genethliakon – a poem in honour of a birthday in association with a gift or standing alone. Callim.
  • hysteron proteron – a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order: ‘putting the cart before the horse’ (note p.218)
  • laudatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in praise or commendation of someone or something
  • propemptikon – a poem that wishes a departing friend or relative all the best for a prosperous trip overseas, such as 1.1
  • recusatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in which the poet says he is unable or disinclined to write the type of poem which he originally intended to, and instead writes in a different style; the Hellenistic poet Callimachus introduced the trope of saying his poetic gift was too modest to attempt great epics, so he would write frivolous love poems instead, and this trope was copied in Augustan Rome by Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Ovid
  • synkrisis – the juxtaposition of people or things with the aim of comparing them: a famous exampe is the juxtaposition of the long speeches by Caesar then Cato in Sallust’s account of the Catiline conspiracy
  • variatio – varying a theme with digressions, examples and so on
  • zeugma – (note p.220) any case of parallelism and ellipsis working together so that a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence: ‘She filed her nails and then a complaint against her boss’

Conclusion

After struggling through both the Metamorphoses and especially the FastiTristia came as a welcome relief. Although a hundred pages long in the Penguin translation, it’s made up of short, discrete poems which you can pick up and read in a few minutes. You can immediately grasp what they’re about, what he’s saying, and immediately empathise with his feelings.

All this is hugely helped by Peter Green’s easy-going, demotic translations and his free approach to rhythm and metre which means you barely notice you’re reading poetry, in the best sense, meaning each poem flows smoothly, seems well phrased and expresses its meaning, conveys its purpose, easily and enjoyably. Surprisingly accessible and enjoyable.

And strongly helped by the fact that the editorial apparatus around the poems is so ample and informative. Not only the introduction to the entire volume, but the extremely useful introductions to each individual poem accompanied by useful notes, but also a long Glossary of named individuals and places. Altogether it makes for a full and thorough and rich and informative experience. Other translations are available, but this is one of the best, most compendious, most enjoyable volumes of Roman literature that I’ve read.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Tristia by Ovid was published by Penguin books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

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Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Cures For Love by Ovid

All my songs offer wise advice, so obey the singer.
(The Cures For Love line 703)

The Cures For Love (Remedia Amoris) follows naturally on from the three short ‘books’ which make up The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria). It’s the same kind of length as one of those books (814 lines, 24 pages in the Penguin paperback edition, translated by Peter Green), has the same gaily mocking tone, and directly relates itself to its predecessors. If the previous three books had claimed to be guides for men and women on how to gain lovers, this one teaches how to cope with a love which has gone wrong.

It is addressed to ‘disappointed gallants’ and describes lovers so miserable they have committed suicide. For those who find unlearning passion impossible, who long to throw off love’s shackles but can’t (line 298) that he writes:

I am your public deliverer, will lighten hearts hard mastered
By passion

Thus he adopts a pose throughout of the book of doctor and healer of broken hearts. (He makes a point of emphasising his advice is for both men and women, although all the examples are cast in the form of male strategies; but he does remember this vow from time to time and repeat that his advice is meant to be unisex.)

As soon as you feel love getting a grip on your heart, throw it out, burn it off. Act quickly.

Rule 1 – always be busy. Love springs up where there is leisure and time to kill. Have things to get you up to do: public business, the law courts. Or become a soldier, go fight the Parthians.

Or farming. For a page he channels the spirit of Virgil’s Eclogues with descriptions of chores on the Roman farm.

Or hunting. Hunting deer across country, or setting traps for small birds.

Or simply leave, go away, go a journey. You’ll cry but ignore all excuses, reasons for delay, and just do it. Travelling companions, sightseeing, practical arrangements – all will take your mind off a love gone bad.

Don’t rely on magic. Their tricks didn’t do either Medea or Circe any good. Just a plain and simple prayer to Apollo, his patron, will do.

Dwell on your grievances, how she:

  • took all your gifts and gave you nothing in return
  • bankrupted you
  • cheated on her promise
  • kept you waiting outside her door all night
  • shags any old travelling salesman, everyone except you

Dwell on her imperfections:

  • her stumpy legs
  • her skinny arms
  • she’s fat
  • she’s dark

Distort the truth: if she’s innocent, say she’s ‘naive’; if she’s experienced, call her ‘saucy’; if she’s a bit plump, call her ‘bloated’.

Whatever talents she doesn’t possess, call for those ones: if she can’t sing, ask her to sing; if she can’t dance, call on her to dance; if she’s clumsy, suggest a going for a walk; if she has udders for breasts, recommend her not to wear a bra.

Kill the image you have of her as a perfect woman. Destroy it, trample it underfoot in order to expel her from your heart.

Make an unannounced surprise early morning visit, before she’s covered her face with paint. Observe how plain she is without her makeup. Look at the pots of disgusting gunk it takes to get her looking even passably presentable. Cultivate your disgust.

[Digression on poetry in which he rebuts critics who accuse him of immorality. He doesn’t write for respectable housewives but for sad loser men and courtesans. Also he is not setting out to write an epic in hexameters; he is writing naughty love poetry in elegiacs. He is already famous and will become even more so, since he has many more poems ready in his head. So Envy can take a hike.]

What about sex with the woman you’re trying to get over? Well, it obviously risks making you fall in love with her all over again? So he recommends various ant-aphrodisiacs.

Have sex with another woman before a date with your girl, then you don’t be mad for it, in fact you’ll be a bit jaded, maybe disgusted with the subject and so can remain aloof and not be tempted.

If you do have sex, choose an unsuitable, ungainly position. Keep the shutters open so critical sunlight reveals all her physical flaws, spots and wrinkles. Memorise every fault in her body. Disgust yourself.

One lover was put off by sight of his girl’s slit, another by the wet patch she left on the sheet when she got up. Watch her having a dump. Yuk. None of these by themselves will sever the bond, but cumulatively will shift your mind from love dependency to disgust, revulsion and so to freedom.

Moving onto a major strategy, he suggests having two mistresses and so diluting the power either one, individually, has over you. He distorts the story of Agamemnon replacing Chryseis with Bryseis to make it fit his thesis (though it doesn’t). But his point is clear. Having two mistresses reduces your emotional dependence on an individual. If one chucks you, it’s no longer the end of the world.

How are you meant to get these other girls? Why, read his Art of Love, of course.

How to find them you ask? Read my handbook,
And your boat will soon be scuppers-deep in girls!
(lines 487 to 488)

Cultivate detachment, even if you don’t feel it. Ignore her calls. If you go and she’s locked the door against you, laugh it off. If she calls you in a crowd, ignore her. She presses you to an assignation, say you have another engagement. Habit makes it easy; we fall in love by habit so we can detach ourselves by cultivating habits of indifference until they become real. If you’re bursting with desire, work it off with a prostitute.

If this doesn’t work for you, if withdrawal and detachment is not your style, try an alternative strategy: throw yourself full tilt into the affair, see her every chance you can, go round her house all the time, have all the sex you can, glut yourself till you begin to sicken, till you become sick of the sight of her house and her.

Don’t be alone. Be always in company. Invite friends round. Have an open door policy. Talk, drink, socialise. Days will pass and you’ll forget your lover.

Avoid other young people who are in love. Being in love is contagious, like the plague. Be with happy, sociable people, but shun anyone who’s all loved up.

Avoid the places you used to go to together, and avoid places you know she frequents. ‘Shun scenes of bygone pleasure.’ Burn her letters. Remove all mementoes. It’s hard, but make a conscious effort to change the habits of the affair.

And don’t go round bragging how you’re not in love any more. That tells everyone that you are. Just let go and let her dribble away from the realm of your desires. Let love ‘fade on the breeze and die’ (l.654).

Don’t hate her. That’s as bad as loving her. Often it’s a symptom of lasting love, certainly of enduring passion. Don’t take her to court, don’t litigate to get your presents back, this keeps the wound alive. Let her keep everything. Walk away. Strive to reach a state of complete detachment, indifference, until you can meet her with the same politeness you extend to any other acquaintance. ‘Until you’re heartwhole’ (752).

Ovid shrewdly remarks that breaking off a love affair is often difficult not so much because we love them as because we want to be loved. It is the horrible emptiness of no longer being loved which is so hard to take. So…inure yourself to it by degrees rather than jumping into an ice cold pool. And replace that hole in your life with friends and family and conviviality and activity.

Rather inevitably he comes round to poetry. Don’t read it. Don’t read Sappho, Callimachus, Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius or, though it pains him to say so, even his own poems. They’ll only reopen the wound.

And rivals? Well, you’ll have to overcome your jealousy. He gives half a page of examples of jealous lovers from mythology. But it’s no good tormenting yourself with the thought of her in someone else’s arms. This may be the hardest task but it is the best testament to having escaped love’s net. When you can greet her new lover with perfect cordiality and shake his hand, you’re nearly there. When you can greet him with a cordial kiss, you’re cured!

Thoughts

Although questionable in detail, and no doubt guilty of sexism in numerous ways, nonetheless this is the most impressive of the four books of love. Suggestions like avoiding the places you used to go to together and avoiding her friends and family so as to extirpate all memory of a miserable love – these strike me as very relevant today and, unlike a lot of the stock clichés of the earlier pickup books, indicate a genuine depth of experience and empathy. They aren’t particularly gender-specific or even heteronormative i.e. the lessons apply equally well for the use of women or LGBTQ+ people i.e. anyone trying to get over a love affair or stop themselves getting sucked into one.


Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Art of Love by Ovid

ego sum praeceptor Amoris
I am Love’s teacher
(The Art of Love, book 1, line 17)

Ovid the pickup artist

Anyone expecting a treatise on the philosophical types of love à la Plato or Castiglione, or expecting a text about sentimental or romantic forms of love, will be very disappointed and possibly repelled. This is a hard-headed book by a professional pickup artist and consists of practical advice to young men on where and how to pick up, chat up, seduce and take to bed women married or single, young or old.

‘Love’ suggests a steady state, an ongoing condition. That bores Ovid. He is interested in the chase, the pursuit. His premise is that any woman can be seduced but only if you have technique, and that’s what he’s going to teach. Any fool can try to chat up a woman just as any fool can try his hand at sports, angling or taming horses. But all these things have a technique, an expertise, traditions and methods to guarantee success. He, Ovid, the teacher of love, pickup artist extraordinaire, seduction guru par excellence, is going to share his top tips with the excited young reader.

Vexing Augustus

Over half of Peter Green’s immense introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s love poems is taken up speculating about why the emperor Augustus abruptly exiled Ovid to the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire, to the miserable frontier town of Tomis, on the Black Sea. To cut a long story short, Green thinks it’s because Ovid was witness to some kind of meeting or evidence about a conspiracy to overthrow Augustus in 8 AD and didn’t report it. In his wretched Letters From Exile Ovid hints at the nature of his crime, but to the immense frustration of scholars for 2,000 years, nowhere spells it out explicitly. He simply insists that he, personally, was never treacherous, never acted against the emperor or planned to poison or kill or hurt anyone. It wasn’t enough. Augustus, and his successor Tiberius, refused to rescind Ovid’s exile and he died miserably in Tomis in 17 or 18 AD.

The point is that Green has to piece this together, and present it as a theory, because Augustus and his people gave it out that the official reason Ovid was banished was for corrupting morals, that Ovid had deliberately undermined Augustus’s programme of moral revival, and they cited this poem, The Art of Love, as the prime example of his corrupting influence.

To grasp the background to this you have to know that, once he had secured a position of complete power, Augustus set about a wholesale programme or reviving Rome in every way: building new roads and aqueducts, encouraging the building of cities in the provinces and roads connecting them, reviving trade. And in Rome, building a grand new forum, rebuilding the temples of various gods, encouraging the revival of ancient religious ceremonies and rituals.

And when it came to the population of Rome, Augustus embarked on a campaign to reform morals and, above all, to encourage the upper classes to marry and have many sons. The series of civil wars from 91 to 31 BC had decimated many venerable old families. Augustus embarked on a series of laws designed to revive them.

In 18 BC he passed the Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus (all laws passed under Augustus began with ‘lex Julia‘ because he saw himself continuing the Julian family of Julius Caesar). This law required all citizens to marry, and granted numerous benefits to fathers of three children or more; conversely, there were penalties for the unmarried and childless. Senators were forbidden from marrying freedmen (ex-slaves).

A year later Augustus passed the Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis. This law punished adultery with banishment. The two guilty parties were sent to different islands and part of their property was confiscated. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners taken in adultery (!). Husbands could kill unfaithful partners, under certain circumstances, and were compelled to divorce adulterous wives (!). Augustus himself invoked the law against his own daughter, Julia (Julia the Elder, who was banished to the island of Pandateria in 2 BC) and then against her eldest daughter (Julia the Younger who was exiled in 8 AD).

In 9 BC Augustus passed the Lex Papia et Poppaea which encouraged and strengthened the institution of marriage. It included provisions against adultery and against celibacy after a certain age. Specifically, it forbade the marriage of a senator or a senator’s children with a libertina (an emancipated slave), with a woman whose father or mother had followed one of the ars ludicra (i.e. been a dancer, actor, gladiator, or other entertainer), with a prostitute, and also the marriage of a libertinus with a senator’s daughter. The provisions against celibacy included, for example, a provision that any unmarried person could not inherit a bequest or legacy; to qualify for the bequest, they had to marry within 100 days. All else being equal, candidates with children were preferred in elections or court cases over candidates with none.

So: Rebuilding Rome, ongoing military campaigns (to pacify northern Spain, parts of Gaul and Switzerland), reviving venerable religious ceremonies, erecting fine new public buildings, enforcing sexual morality, these were all key policies of the new emperor – and, in the Art of Love, Ovid mocks every single one of them.

Ovid’s book says that being a layabout sex pest is a much more worthy lifestyle than being a boring old soldier. He mocks the empire’s military campaigns. He thinks the gods are a load of lies and fancy stories. He thinks the only use of Rome’s fine new buildings is for hanging round so you can pick up women. And above all, he targets married women. The Art of Love encourages and gives tips about precisely the kind of marital infidelity and sexual aberrance which Augustus passed laws and went to great lengths to try and prevent.

Let me instruct you in all
The way of deceit.
(3.617)

In line after line, topic after topic, Ovid seems to be deliberately, calculatedly, spitting in the face of everything Augustus dedicated his life to achieving. The only wonder about all this is why it took till 8 AD for Augustus to banish Ovid given that the Ars Amatoria was published around 1 BC i.e. 8 or 9 years earlier. And also the fact that, by the time of his banishment, Ovid himself had moved on from his erotic period and had only just published the Metamorphoses, his huge collection of ancient myths and legends, far more acceptable to Augustus and his regime, although with a strong, amoral emphasis on sex and violence.

Hence Green’s elaborate theory that the accusations of corrupting public morals which the regime used to justify exiling Ovid so far away were really just a cover for something else, in Green’s view Ovid’s passive participation in some kind of political conspiracy against Augustus.

Comparison with Oscar Wilde

So, in a way, reading the Ars is like reading Oscar Wilde. Obviously you can just read Wilde for the immediate pleasure of his wit and style but…the experience changes when you learn that many passages of his work were read out in court and interpreted in a blunt, literal sense in order to be used as evidence against him, evidence that he mocked Victorian values, mocked decent ‘morality’, and promoted irresponsible sensuality and gross immorality i.e. homosexuality.

What made Wilde’s defence so difficult was that he had written all these subversive thoughts, albeit in a wonderfully witty style. Wilde thought his style would save him but it didn’t. Therefore, reading Wilde with this in mind can be unintentionally harrowing, because each time he pokes his tongue out at conventional Victorian values you shudder for the wretched fate it was to bring him (two years hard labour in a series of grim prisons, which utterly broke his spirit and led to his early death).

Same with Ovid. Having read Green’s very long introduction, which dwells on the miseries of his Black Sea exile, means that, every time Ovid pokes his tongue out at and mocks all the po-faced solemnities of official Roman morality, you shiver a little with a premonition of what is to befall him, the miserable fate that all these witty little jokes would end up bringing down on his head.

The theatre’s curving tiers should form your favourite
Hunting ground: here you are sure to find
The richest returns, be your wish for lover or playmate,
A one-night stand or a permanent affair.
As ants hurry to and fro in column, mandibles
Clutching grains of wheat
(Their regular diet), as bees haunt fragrant pastures
And meadows, hovering over the thyme,
Flitting from flower to flower, so our fashionable ladies
Swarm to the games in such crowds, I often can’t
Decide which I like. As spectators they come, come to be inspected:
Chaste modesty doesn’t stand a chance.
(lines 89 to 100)

Proem

Back to the poem itself, the first 30 or so lines make up the proem, an ancient term for preface or prologue. It is here that Ovid explains his aim of systematically teaching the technique of the pickup artist. It does include a half line invocation of the goddess Venus, but in an almost insultingly cursory manner, compared to the five lines he spends explaining that this book isn’t theoretical – he has lived and practiced all the tricks he describes himself. He emphatically insists everything the book is based on personal experience and is fact.

There follows a brief, 10-line partitio (‘a logical division into parts or heads’, ‘a descriptive programme of contents’) where he lays out the subject matter the poem will address, which is easily summarised:

  • Book 1 is about finding and wooing a woman
  • Book 2 is about keeping her

The text contains a book 3, just as long, in fact longer than either book 1 or 2, so the fact that it isn’t mentioned in the partitio makes scholars think it was a later addition.

Book 1 (773 lines)

After the proem and partitio, book 1 is divided into two halves: part one is a description of all the best places in Rome to pick up women, namely the colonnades, foreign temples (the synagogue is a good place), the theatre, the circus (for chariot racing), during triumphal processions, at dinner parties and at coastal spas, notably the notorious resort of Baiae.

Part two lists ploys and strategies for winning women. Cultivate their maids (but don’t end up sleeping with them) so they’ll put in a good word for you at the opportune moment, like when the mistress has been snubbed by another lover.

Don’t let the target woman con you into giving them expensive presents: he lists some of the scams women use to try and wangle gifts from their lovers, and how to resist them. (This was a prominent theme in the elegiac love poems of Tibullus and Propertius, too.)

Soften them up with love letters. Use language carefully, softly, sweetly. And persist: Time breaks stubborn oxen to the yoke, Time accustoms wild horses to the bridle. Same with women.

Be clean in your personal hygiene, though not effeminately so: ‘Real men shouldn’t primp their good looks’ (line 509). Take exercise, work up an outdoor tan. Hair and beard demand expert attention. Trim your nails and your nose hairs. Avoid male body odour.

Don’t drink too much at dinner parties (though it can be handy to pretend to be more drunk than you are as this gives you licence to be more forward than a sober man would be, in order to test the waters). Become knowledgeable in the language of secret signs. Drink from her cup, accidentally brush your hand against hers. If she’s with a companion, butter him up. Let him have precedence, award him the garland so he looks favourably on you.

Promise anything; lovers’ oaths don’t count.

Don’t be shy about promising: it’s promises girls are undone by. (1.631)

You can’t flatter too much, every woman is vain of her appearance.

Undermine them with devious
Flatteries: so a stream will eat away
Its overhanging bank. Never weary of praising
Her face, her hair, her slim fingers, her tiny feet.
Even the chaste like having their good looks published,
Even virgins are taken up with their own
Cute figures.
(1.619 to 624)

Look pale and thin to prove your sincerity. Lean and haggard, reek of sleepless nights, make yourself an object of pity so passersby comment, ‘He must be in love.’

Mocking Romulus

Describing the theatre as a good location to pick up women leads Ovid into an extended comparison with the legend about early Rome, that Romulus and his band of earliest settlers invited members of the nearby Sabine tribe to a very early version of a theatrical entertainment and then, at a pre-arranged signal, all the Romans grabbed a Sabine woman and ran off with them. The so-called Rape of the Sabine Women. It was a traditional story, told in many texts, what makes it Ovidian is the way he satirises and mocks Romulus’s high-minded speeches, and makes the entire story a kind of justification for the contemporary theatre being a good pickup location, an ironic mocking use of ‘tradition’ to justify his current cynical activities.

Ever since that day, by hallowed custom,
Our theatres have always held dangers for pretty girls.

In his notes (p.341) Green points out that Augustus, as part of his programme of restoring Roman values and traditions and religions, took the figure of Romulus very seriously indeed, in fact he had for a while considered renaming himself Romulus before the negative connotations outweighed the positive and he settled on the title ‘Augustus’ (awarded him by the Senate in 27 BC). So in this passage Ovid is going out of his way to take the mickey out of a figure very dear indeed to Augustus’s heart, and remodel him as a sponsor for Ovid’s own brand of cynical sexual predatoriness. Can you imagine how furious Augustus must have been?

The gods are expedient

Book 1 contains a line which became famous, it’s line 637 in Green’s translation:

The existence of gods is expedient: let us therefore assume it.

This sounds like a grand philosophical statement. In fact it’s more to do with the fact that the gods of the Graeco-Roman pantheon behaved scandalously, indulging human passions, mad with lust or jealousy…so let’s copy them with a clear conscience. Jupiter seduced umpteen women so…so can I! Again, you can imagine Augustus reading this kind of thing and grinding his teeth with anger.

Book 2 (746 lines)

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much more offensive, it stops. Book 2 is about keeping your beloved and is considerably more emollient and less sexist than Book 1.  Obviously it has the same underlying ideology, which is that women are passive animals while men are the smart manipulators, which 50% of the population may find grossly offensive, but a lot of the actual advice could have come out of a contemporary advice column. Maybe…

To be loved, you must prove yourself lovable.

(So much so that Green in his notes is regularly lampooning the triteness of some the agony aunt truisms he spouts. Maybe. Maybe not.)

Ovid opens Book 2 with ironic cheers for the man who has followed his advice and managed to ‘bag’ himself a lady love. Well done, sunshine. But now the real challenge in this whole business is how to keep her. So that’s what this book will be about:

If my art
Caught her, my art must keep her. To guard a conquest’s
As tricky as making it. There was luck in the chase,
But this task will call for skill.

Don’t mess with witchcraft, aphrodisiacs or drugs. Didn’t work for Medea or Circe. Instead (surprisingly) cultivate the life of the mind.

… to avoid a surprise desertion
And keep your girl, it’s best you have gifts of mind
In addition to physical charms…

Then build an enduring mind, add that to your beauty:
It alone will last till the flames
Consume you. Keep your wits sharp, explore the liberal
Arts, win a mastery over Greek
As well as Latin. Ulysses was eloquent, not handsome…

Be pleasant. Be tactful, be tolerant and understanding. Keep clear of all quarrels and recriminations. Love is sensitive and needs to be fed with gentle words. Leave wrangling to wives; a mistress should hear what she wants to hear.

He emphasises the distinction between married couples who have law to keep them together, and the kind of couples he’s describing where ‘love substitutes for law’. a) the kind of thing calculated to get Augustus’s goat b) a shrewd distinction. Married couples have not only the law, but shared responsibilities for raising children and the expectations of family, plus social reputation, to keep them together; illicit lovers have none of that. So it behoves them to be more considerate and tolerant. In another throwaway line which mockingly equates Rome’s mighty military enterprises with his frothy adulterer’s handbook:

Fight Parthians, but keep peace with a civilised mistress.
(2.175)

Do not use brute force. Go with the natural bend of the bough, don’t force it. Go with the current. Laugh when she laughs, cry when she cries, approve what she approves, criticise what she criticises. Open her parasol, clear a path through the crowd. Help her on and off with her slippers. Don’t bridle at menial tasks like holding her mirror for her. Always be early for dates. If she asks for you at her country residence, Go, no matter what the weather or obstacles.

About now I began to wonder what the point of all this is? The aim doesn’t appear to be to have sex at all. Sex isn’t mentioned anywhere in Book 1 and only appears a bit in the last couple of pages of Book 2 (see below). It’s nice, but it doesn’t appear to the be the prime aim. It feels more as if the whole point of the chase is the thrill of the chase itself and the achievement of…. what exactly? Winning a woman’s what? Heart? Allegiance? Devotion? When he writes that ‘Love is a species of warfare’, I don’t take it in the sexist sense to mean warfare between men and women, but warfare between male suitors for.. for what? For the beloved’s love? All the elegiac poets complain bitterly when their lady love is taken off them by another man: the embittered poem to The Rival is a genre unto itself.

Is it just about a sense of possession, of ownership? Is it about winning a woman as a trophy and then….then not really knowing quite what to do with her?

Anyway, the reference to Parthia allows Ovid a passage comparing the soldier of love with the actual soldier in the army, and make witty comparisons with the hardships both have to endure, a trope which is beginning to feel done to death in the Amores and here, let alone in all the other elegiac poets.

It may sound ludicrous but the rhetoric about the need to humble your pride, humiliate yourself, debase yourself before your beloved, accept that no task is too great to please her is reminiscent of Christian rhetoric, with its emphasis on humility and service. At moments Ovid steps out of the 1st century BC and sounds like a medieval troubador or Renaissance lover.

(Personally, as a Darwinian materialist, I would venture that this is because human nature is finite and only capable of a fixed array of emotions, feelings and strategies. The same kind of rhetoric is found in communist propaganda, which tells you to mortify your bourgeois pride in order to throw in your lot with The People, accepting any task, no matter how humble, for the sake of the Revolution. I appreciate the contexts are wildly different but the same phrases and attitudes can be found in numerous ideologies and religions. We humans think we’re fabulous but are, in practice, very limited, very predictable animals.)

Back to Ovid’s Top Tips for Lovers: Don’t give your mistress costly presents – give small ones, but chosen with skill and discretion. Poetry? Girls might be impressed by it as by a cute little gift, but what most women really want is money, rich presents. That’s why this is truly ‘the Golden Age’, he says, with heavy irony.

Very casually he mentions slaves that are going to be manumitted, or about to be flogged, or sent to a chain gang. As usual, I find references to slavery profoundly disturbing (as I do the references to upper class women scratching the faces of their slave maids or stabbing them with pins, if they make a mistake). The context is that if you were thinking of forgiving your slaves their punishments, wangle it so your mistress pleads for mercy, then do what you were going to do anyway.

Praise her beauty. Praise anything she’s wearing. Compliment her hair, or her dancing, or her singing. Lay it on with a trowel. Praise her technique in bed. The one golden rule is don’t overdo it and get caught out obviously lying. Then your reputation’s ruined.

If she gets ill, attend her sick room, cry, be all sympathy, bring an old crone to purify the room.

The key is to be always present, get her accustomed to you, hearing your voice, seeing your face. Then, when you’ve reached peak presence, arrange to be absent and make her miss you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder…up to a point. Not too long. In a page-long passage he doesn’t blame Helen for eloping with Paris but Menelaus for going off and leaving her by herself (2.357 to 372) (a theme he explored in some detail in the Heroides supposedly written by Helen and Paris).

In a very throwaway manner he says, obviously he’s not imagining you’re restricting yourself to just one lover. God forbid! So in order not to get caught out, don’t give X presents that Y might recognise; make sure you erase all previous messages from a wax tablet letter you send lover Y; don’t meet different lovers in the same places, cultivate different locales for each.

If she catches you out, deny everything, if that fails go for it, in bed. Hard ‘cocksmanship’ is its own proof that a) your not shagging anyone else b) you’re still devoted. Some aphrodisiacs might work and he gives a characteristically Roman quirky list of foodstuffs and ingredients (white Megarian onions, colewort, eggs, Hymettus honey, pine nuts).

If things get boring you could strategically let slip that you’re seeing someone else. Handled correctly, with the right kind of girl, this could lead to terrible scenes and recriminations, sure, but if you navigate your way through the tears, beg forgiveness, take her to bed and have great make-up sex, this can rejuvenate a relationship.

The last couple of hundred lines become chaotic. I found this with Horace’s last few epistles, as well. Roman poets are not great at structure. Their poems often take unexpected turns and detours. Out of nowhere the god Apollo appears by Ovid’s side and delivers a 20 line lecture, telling lovers to employ the famous motto over his oracle in Delphi, namely to know yourself. So if you’re handsome, always present your profile; if you’re clever, fill the space at dinner parties with brilliant talk; if a good drinker, show it and so on. It’s puzzling and random that Apollo pops up like this, given that he was name-checked in the opening lines of the poem as a god who had not inspired the poet (who insists everything he teaches derives from his own experience).

After this interruption, there’s a more puzzling digression as he appears to say that all lovers should know when to quit. It is not gentlemanly to become a bore. Know when to leave, before she starts complaining that you’re always hanging around (2.530). You’d have thought this – advice on how to end a relationship – would come right at the end of the book.

Instead the book still has 200 lines to run and continues with a section on how to cope with a rival, which is accept him with sang-froid – advice Ovid immediately goes on to say he finds hard to follow himself. He advises lovers to let their mistress have another lover and turn a blind eye. Snooping, opening letters, eavesdropping, those are the mean-minded activities of a husband, a lover should rise above them.

There’s more contradiction here, because Ovid had (unnecessarily and briefly) asserted that he doesn’t have in mind, he never has in mind, respectably married matrons. And yet here and at many other places, he mentions the husband of the ideal target of all this seduction technique. It’s a flat contradiction which has no clever or literary impact – it just comes over as confused and contradictory, either badly planned or contradictory passages have been cut and pasted together, for some reason.

The final section seems repetitive. He (again) advises flattery: if the mistress is black as pitch call her a ‘brunette’ to flatter her; if she squints, compare her to Venus; if she croaks, tell her she’s like Minerva; if she’s a living skeleton, call her ‘svelte’.

Never ask a woman her age, specially if she’s past her girlish prime. Anyway, age is good, it brings experience, sophistication and skill. They know a thousand different positions. And then he surprised me by making the most explicit reference I’ve read in any Roman poet. Green has Ovid saying he likes it when both partners reach climax during love making. That’s his main objection to sex with boys, he loves making his mistress gasp with sex, and making her climax (2.683 to 691).

He gives sex advice: touch her where she wants to be touched; watch her eyes assume that expression, rapture, gasps and moans. Take your time. Don’t hurry to climax and don’t come before your mistress.

Book 2 ends with a comic conclusion in which he says he excels all the soldier heroes of legend for his skill and excellence in teaching, so may every man who uses his advice to win and keep a mistress carve a trophy with the words: ‘Ovid was my guide’!

This feels like a very neat tying up of the poem and many scholars feel it was the original ending, emphasised by the fact that two of the heroes he mentions – Achilles and Automedon – were mentioned right at the start of Book 2.

But there then appear 2 additional lines, claiming that now – the girls want his advice, which most scholars think were tacked on in order to justify the later addition of Book 3.

Book 3 (812 lines)

A prologue explaining that he’s equipped men against women, now he’s going to do the reverse and offer the girls the benefit of his ‘wisdom’. The same kind of sweeping generalisations he made against women in books 1 and 2 he now makes for women. It reminds me of Cicero the lawyer, arguing sometimes for, sometimes against, the same client. It makes you realise the extent to which this poem obviously, but maybe Roman literature as a whole, was always much more of a rhetorical exercise than we are used to. Was always more of a performance of the poet’s skill in a certain style, in a certain metre, on a certain topic – than anything like our notion of poetry in particular as expressing genuine personal feelings and views.

All this explains his sudden volte-face and attempts to prove the opposite of what he was asserting a few pages back.

Men are often deceivers, girls hardly ever.

I was president of my school debating society. I recognise the signs of being given a topic you don’t have much sympathy for, and being told to present a case, first for it, then against it. You don’t win prizes for sincerity. You win prizes for the skill with which you select and present your points.

He invents the notion of Venus appearing to him and complaining that men are benefiting from his 2 books of advice; give the girls a chance.

In fact, his advice kicks off by not being particularly woman-friendly. He spends a couple of pages striking the carpe diem note i.e. your youth will pass, you’ll grow old and wizened and grey-haired so seize the day, give into love. Maybe your lover will turn out a cheat and a liar, who cares? What’s lost? Have a shower and move onto the next one. Some goods wear out with use, but your privates won’t wear out (line 92) so let your lovers come to the well a thousand times.

I naively thought the book would be a guide to women on the art of seducing men, so was disappointed when it turned out to be more like a woman’s magazine-type set of articles about how to make the most of yourself. Don’t overdo jewellery and accessories. Advice on the best hairstyle to match the shape of your face. A page on different colours for dresses. Shave your armpits and your legs. Clean your teeth. Make-up, powder and rouge. Mascara. As traditional, the best make-up remains unobtrusive (3.211).

Keep all this hard work hidden. ‘There’s a lot men are better off not knowing.’

Beauties don’t need him, his advice is for the less than perfect, the ugly or plain or short (just as his advice to men wasn’t to the handsome and rich, who need no help, but the less well-off and physically ordinary). He goes on to give advice for the skinny, the pale, the swarthy, those with skinny calves or ugly feet, buck teeth or bad breath.

Learn to cry on demand. Learn to walk elegantly with a nice sway of the hips (3.302).

Girls should know how to sing and play a musical instrument. And, of course, poetry, leading into a much-cited passage mentioning the appeal of various poets, the love poetry of Catullus, Tibullus or Propertius, the heroic history of Virgil (‘the most publicised Latin poem of all time’) maybe even his own products, the Amores and Heroides (proudly boasting that the heroic epistle is an art form he invented himself).

A girl should know how to dance. And how to play board games, which leads into a page about Roman board games which is infuriatingly light on detail (apparently, historians don’t know how to play even one single Roman board game). Ovid points out the key thing about playing is to maintain control while men, all too easily excited by games, lose theirs.

A confused section contrasts women’s limited social freedoms with men being able to exercise on the Field of Mars and go swimming in the Tiber; which quickly cuts back to places women can go to, a surprisingly large amount i.e. temples, the colonnades, the theatre, the circus, the forum. Somehow this morphs back onto a passage about poets and how they used to be respected in olden times, not so much nowadays. As towards the end of Book 2, it feels like Ovid is just cutting and pasting passages in willy-nilly, with no logic and unnecessary repetition. Somehow the passage about poetry ends with the conclusion that a good place to find a husband is at your last husband’s funeral, when you’re there with dishevelled hair and tear-stained eyes, which some men find very sexy.

Beware of smart-looking young beaux with a handsome profile and rings on their fingers – they’re cheaters and users.

By line 470, sensing that he’s becoming chaotic, Ovid tells himself to rein his muse in and try and be more structured in how he’s presenting this advice.

How to handle letters from passionate lovers i.e. wait a bit then get your maid or boy to reply. Don’t be taken in by feigned passion.

Riskily he refers to Augustus as ‘our great leader’ and just as he places men in various positions, advises a woman to do the same to her prospective lovers.

Confusingly there’s now a third section about poets, this time including some famous lines about how they get their inspiration from heaven, the God is within them etc. Sure, but why weren’t these three separate passages about poets gathered together and ordered more logically?

Back to lovers. Lock them out sometimes. Make them sweat. When things are getting boring drop hints that you have another lover, he has a rival. Juice him up. Pretend your husband’s a tyrant who’s having you watched. In the middle of an assignation have a maid come running in shouting, ‘The master’s coming,’ and then both bundle him out the window in a panic. That’ll keep him interested.

He gives a couple of pages on how to evade the watchful eye of your husband or guardian, by smuggling messages in and out, arranging illicit meetings, using a friend’s apartment, dates at the theatre or circus, let alone the baths, or the religious ceremonies supposedly restricted to women only etc.

Don’t trust girlfriends. Or your own maid. Ovid confesses to having seduced many a maid when her mistress just made herself too unavailable. The theme of jealousy prompts him to insert a lengthy telling of the story of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746). This feels like padding out and is immediately followed by a note to himself to stop all these digressions.

Final burst of advice: regarding parties, already arrive late, after dark, when the torches have been lit. Eat sparingly and daintily. Final part is another surprisingly candid section of sexual advice. Just as he recommended different hairstyles and dress colours for different faces and physiques, here he runs through half a dozen different sexual positions which are appropriate for different body types (if you have a pretty face, do it missionary position; if a strong back, from behind; if you’re petite, ride him like a horse etc).

This and the parallel passage in Book 2 are the only descriptions I’ve read in the 50 or so Roman texts I’ve read. As this is a guidebook, they’re brisk and practical. As in Book 2, his ideal is that man and woman climax together. He is aware of the fact that many women can’t climax (at least not through penetrative sex) and so suggests they pant and moan and pretend, ‘put on an act!’ something, as I understand it, hundreds of millions of women have done through the ages.

And with that it’s over and he, very weakly, ends with a straight repeat of the lines at the end of Book 2, telling his girl disciples, like the boys before them, to inscribe on their trophies of successful loves, ‘Ovid was my guide.’ It was funny the first time round. Here it’s indicative of Book 3’s very belated, tacked-on and ragbag structure. No wonder he tells himself frequently throughout the book to leave off digressing, to get back to the point, to pull his socks up.

I wonder if a powerful woman ordered him to add a Book 3. Livia, maybe?


Sexism

The Ars Amatoria isn’t a bit sexist, it is made of sexism. Has there ever been a more sexist book? The entire text is based on the assumption that women are prey, like wild animals, to be stalked and captured, that they have little or no will of their own, that their main characteristics are vanity about their looks and shopping, which is why the pickup artist should focus on relentless flattery and know how to gracefully handle endless demands for gifts.

As the Amores set out to capture and record every possible aspect of the love poem, as the Metamorphoses set out to record every single Greek myth which involved bodily change, so the Ars Amatoria is, in effect, an encyclopedia of sexist and misogynist attitudes.

I could list the ways Ovid dehumanises women, reducing them to game (as in big game, animals to be hunted), birds to be caught, wild animals to be stalked, fish to be hooked, or soil to be ploughed, wild land to be tamed, and so on.

At a less metaphorical level, he is straightforward insulting about women’s natures:

If you’re wise
Gull only girls, they’re no danger. In this one deception
It’s good faith that ought to make you blush.
They’re cheats, so cheat them: most are dumb and unscrupulous: let them
Fall into the traps they’ve set themselves.
(1.642 to 646)

If Augustus was driven to fury by Ovid’s calculated mockery of Rome’s religion, venerable founder, and sexual mores, what must the formidable Livia have made of this unrelenting abuse of women as a sex? Did she have any input into the decision to banish the scandalous poet?

I imagine modern women readers will struggle with such continual libel, objectification, undermining, insult, sexism and misogyny without being overcome with disgust. Towards the end of Book 1 Ovid sinks into the darkest hole of all when he repeats the lie of the ages, that when a woman says no she doesn’t mean it: all women, deep down, want to be overcome, by force if necessary.

It’s all right to use force – force of that sort goes down well with
The girls: what in fact they love to yield
They’d often rather have stolen. Rough seduction
Delights them, the audacity of near-rape
Is a compliment.
(1.673 to 677)

And goes on to mention two women from Greek mythology who were raped and then fell in love with their rapists. Wow. Needs no comment from me.

Just one comment about Green’s style. As I mentioned in my review of his translation of the Amores, Green uses an exaggeratedly demotic, Jack-the-Lad register, and this turns out to be really appropriate for this poem, which is a long hymn to Jack the Lads. I now understand that Green’s very demotic style – which I initially thought inappropriate for the Amores – turns out to be very appropriate for the Art of Love, bringing out the vulgarity and crudity of a lot of the thought, more so than a smoother, more ‘literary’ translation might have done.

Many women adore the elusive,
Hate over-eagerness. So, play hard to get,
Stop boredom developing. And don’t let your entreaties
Sound too confident of possession. Insinuate sex
Camouflaged as friendship
. I’ve seen ultra-stubborn creatures
Fooled by this gambit, the switch from companion to stud.
(1.717 to 722)

This is a vivid translation of often very repellent sentiments.

Anticipations of the Metamorphoses

Ovid is most known and read for his epic masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, a long poem in 15 books which chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. What makes it distinctive is that it tells the story via a series of classic Greek myths or legends, in particular, stories about humans metamorphosing into plants and animals of which, when you come to study it, there turn out to be a surprising number.

I mention it here because, unexpectedly, and not really directly relevant, the Ars Amatoria contains fairly long passages which anticipate some of these stories. Thus there are extended accounts of:

Book 1

  • the legend of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete, and how she was impregnated by a bull, conceiving the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur (1.289 to 327)
  • Bacchus coming to the rescue of Ariadne, abandoned on her desert island by Theseus (1.525 to 564)

Book 2

  • Daedalus devising his plan to escape imprisonment on Crete by creating wings for himself and his son Icarus, and flying to freedom (2.20 to 97)
  • the creation of the world and the universal drive to procreate among animals (2.467 to 489)
  • Vulcan trapping his wife in adultery with Mars (2.561 to 592)

Book 3

  • the legend of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746)

Last word

Let others worship the past; I much prefer the present,
Am delighted to be alive today.
(3.121)

This is actually quite a striking departure from convention, because it was axiomatic for pretty much all writers and thinkers in the ancient world that the past contained a matchless Golden Age and the present was a sad, fallen age of degeneration and decline. In this handful of words Ovid rejects that entire tradition and hapless, sorry-for-itself way of thinking and strikes an exuberantly Nietzschean note: Rejoice! The present is all we have, so: Make the most of it.


Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Amores by Ovid

The Peter Green edition

I read Ovid’s Amores in the 1982 Penguin edition, which also includes Ovid’s later works, The Art of Love and the Cures for Love, all translated and introduced by Peter Green. This edition contains an awesome amount of editorial paraphernalia. The introduction is 81 pages long and there are 167 pages of notes at the end, so that’s 248 pages of scholarly apparatus (not counting the index). The text of the three Ovid works only take up 180 pages. So in the Penguin/Peter Green edition there’s a hell of a lot of information to process. And in doing so, it’s possible to get caught up in the matrix of interconnections (this passage from an Amor resembling that passage from the Art of Love and so on) and the web of mythological references and end up quite losing yourself in what is quite a deceptively huge book.

Ovid’s Amores

Ovid’s Amores (Latin for ‘loves’) is a set of 50 short love poems written in the elegiac metre – pairs of lines or couplets in which the first line is a hexameter, the second line a pentameter – a format which had become traditional in late-Republican Rome for this kind of subject matter. Poets such as Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius and several others whose works are now lost (notably Gallus), had used the elegiac metre for this kind of personal love poem, generally addressing poems to a beautiful but inaccessible and capricious lady. Catullus (born 84 BC) addressed poems to Lesbia, Tibullus (b.55 BC) to Delia, Propertius (b.55 BC) to Cynthia and Ovid (b.43 BC) to Corrina.

A.M. Juster in his introduction to the love poems of Tibullus suggests that Ovid took the form to such a peak of clever irony, witty pastiche and knowing self-mockery that he hollowed out the form and ended the tradition; nobody after him attempted such a long sequence of love poems in this format and metre.

A little epigram at the start of the work tells us that Ovid’s Amores were initially published in five volumes in about 16 BC. The Penguin translator, Peter Green, devotes some of his huge introduction to speculating that these were very much a young man’s poems and that some time in middle life, Ovid went back, deleted some, rewrote others, and republished them in the three-volume edition we have today.

The Amores’ contents are very straightforward. The poet writes in the first person of his love affair with an unattainable higher-class woman, Corinna. Each poem picks a different incident or mood in this love affair then explores or develops it with rhetorical, logical and poetical skill. The sequence builds into a showcase for the poet’s skills at handling different subjects and feelings.

In line with the idea that Ovid was the most sophisticated and knowing poet in this tradition, many scholars doubt whether the ‘Corrina’ addressed throughout the poems ever actually existed, but was merely a literary pretext for the poet’s powers.

Ovid’s sequence feels more unified and planned as a narrative than those of Tibullus or Propertius; both those poets include in their works lots of poems on unrelated subjects. On closer examination, so does Ovid, addressing a number of husbands, lady’s maids, and women he’s pursuing who are evidently not Corrina. Nonetheless, the sequence somehow feels more smooth and structured than those of his predecessors.

Of course, if the other poets were describing actual events, the order of their poems is likely to be as scrappy and haphazard as real life generally is; whereas, if Ovid was making the whole thing up, he could afford to be more carefully structured and calculating.

Carefree Ovid

Unlike all the previous Roman authors I’ve reviewed, the key thing about Ovid is that he grew up in times of peace. Born in 43 BC, Publius Ovidius Naso was just a toddler during the civil wars which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and just 12 when Octavius won his decisive battle against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC, which brought 60 years of civil wars to an end.

This may explain the tone of frivolous irresponsibility which marks most of Ovid’s poetic career. Green makes the point that from about 25 BC (when he’s thought to have started the Amores) through to 1 AD (when he published the Cure For Love) Ovid devoted the best years of his maturity to writing about sex.

OK, he also wrote the 21 love letters of the Heroides (themselves on the subject of love) and a play on the subject of Medea (now, tragically, lost) but what survived, and survived because it was so popular, were his witty, clever poems depicting the author as a stylish man-about-town and sexual athlete. He may describe himself as a ‘slave to love’ (a trope so common it had its own name, the servitium amoris), stricken by Cupid’s arrows and plunged into despair – but it’s impossible to ever take Ovid seriously. Irony, parody and irreverent laughter are his thing, what Green describes as ‘his wit, his irony, his bubbling sense of fun’ (p.80). As Green puts it, ‘Ovid is Homo ludens in person’.

The translation

On page 79 of his long introduction Green explains that he is going to translate the strict elegiac metre (a hexameter followed by a pentameter) very freely, using ‘a variable short-stopped line with anything from five to two stresses’. This approach hints at the metrical regularity of the original, yet gives scope for changes of pace and emphasis, ‘often through a casual enjambment that works more easily in English than it might in Latin.’ None of this prepares you for the tone and style of Green’s translations, which is wild, flippant and jazzy.

Arms, warfare, violence – I was winding up to produce a
Regular epic, with verse form to match –
Hexameters, naturally. But Cupid (they say) with a snicker
Lopped off one foot from each alternate line.
‘Nasty young brat,’ I told him, ‘Who made you Inspector of Metres?
We poets comes under the Muses, we’re not in your mob.’

Right from the start Green announces the flippancy and slanginess of this translation. The result is that the number of beats in each line is difficult to ascertain and, as Green indicated, not at all regular. Instead we are carried away by the energy of the diction, although this, also, is a little difficult to nail down. That ‘Hexameters, naturally’ sounds like a confident posh boy, but ‘snicker’ is an American word, whereas ‘mob’, I suppose, is an America word associated with the 1930s but makes me think of the Lavender Hill Mob. So I found his tone wildly all over the place.

‘Look boy, you’ve got your own empire and a sight too much influence…’

‘Boy’ is either the demeaning word used by southern Americans to blacks (unlikely) or the tone of a posh, public school banker to a waiter at his club (maybe); ‘a sight too much’ strikes me as a very English locution, again of a posh variety, something I don’t think anybody says any more. I give plenty of quotes below, and you can see for yourself how Green uses a variety of locutions to create a witty, slangy, vibrant register.

The Amores

Book 1

1.1 The poet announces that love will be his theme.

In a trope familiar from all the elegists, the poet declares he wanted to write a grand epic as society (and Augustus) require, but was foiled by Cupid. When he wails that he hasn’t got a subject to write about Cupid promptly shoots him with his arrows, making him fall furiously in love.

‘Hey, poet!’ he called, ‘you want a theme? Take that!’
His shafts – worse luck for me – never miss their target:
I’m on fire now, Love owns the freehold of my heart.

So that’s going to be the subject, love, and Ovid himself, right here in the first poem, describes the process of abandoning ambitious plans to write a highfalutin’ epic poem in regular hexameters and settling for the alternating metre of elegiacs:

So let my verse rise with six stresses, drop to five on the downbeat –
Goodbye to martial epic and epic metre too!

1.2 He admits defeat to Cupid

He tosses and turns at night and then pleads with Cupid that he’ll come quietly. The ox that resists the yoke suffers most or, as Green puts it in his deliberately uncouth, slangy style:

It’s the same with Love. Play stubborn, you get a far more thorough
Going-over than those who admit they’re hooked.
So I’m coming clean, Cupid: here I am, your latest victim.

Sounds like a character from ‘The Sweeney’ – I’m surprised he doesn’t address Cupid as ‘guv’nor’. Anyway, the poet says he’ll submit to Love’s demands, he’ll be a captive in Love’s great triumphal procession, and then gives a mock description of a Roman triumph as burlesqued by Love and Love’s army:

And what an escort – the Blandishment Corps, the Illusion
And Passion Brigade, your regular bodyguard:
These are the troops you employ to conquer men and immortals…

1.3 He addresses his lover for the first time and lists her good qualities

Green’s Cockney register continues in this poem, where the poet addresses Venus and vows to be true to her if she can make his mistress love him.

Fair’s fair now, Venus. This girl’s got me hooked. All I’m asking for
Is love – or at least some future hope for my own
Eternal devotion. No, even that’s too much – hell, just let me love her!
(Listen, Venus: I’ve asked you so often now.)
Say yes, pet. I’d be your slave for years, for a lifetime.

‘Pet’? Very casual locution, originally from the North East of England. Anyway, Ovid goes on to say that he doesn’t come from some posh, blue-blood family with ‘top-drawer connections’.

What have I got on my side, then? Poetic genius, sweetheart.

‘Sweetheart’? This is fun.

1.4 He attends a dinner part where his beloved and her husband are also present

The poet is driven so mad with jealousy that his beloved is going to be embraced and kissed and pawed by her husband, in full view of himself and everyone else at this dinner party, that he gives her a list of secret signs to reassure him that she secretly loves him.

As with everything else in the Amores, you strongly feel these are stock clichés of the form, but jived up by Ovid’s breezy attitude. So: when she’s thinking about the last time they made love, she should touch her cheek with her thumb; if she’s cross with him but can’t say so, pinch her earlobe; if he says or does something which pleases her, she should turn the ring on her finger.

If her husband kisses her, he swears he’ll leap up, declare his love, and claim all her kisses as his own! He’ll follow them home and, though he’ll be locked outside at her door, he begs her to be frigid with her husband, ‘make sex a dead loss’.

1.5 Corinna visits him for afternoon sex

This is the poem brilliantly translated by Christopher Marlowe one and a half thousand years after it was written. It’s the first time in the sequence that Corrina is called by her name.

1.6 He begs Corrina’s doorkeeper to let him into her house to see his love

This is an example of the paraclausithyron or ‘poem at the beloved’s door’ and Ovid adopts the traditional figure of the exclusus amator (the ‘shut-out lover’). Similar poems were written by Horace (Odes 3.10), Tibullus (Elegies 1.2) and Propertius (Elegies 1.16). Propertius’s variation on this familiar theme is notable, for he gets the door itself to give its opinion about all these weeping lovers hanging round outside it.

In Ovid’s version, the poet tracks through a range of topoi associated with this genre – how the poet’s tears water the doorpost, how the porter need only open the door a fraction because the poor poet has lost so much weight pining away that he’ll be able to slip through a mere crack, etc.

What struck me was the opening line where he describes how the door slave is chained to the doorpost. At line 20 he reminds the door slave of the time he was stripped ready for a whipping but he, the poet, talked Corrina out of punishing him. This is all meant to be part of the playful banter, but…chains and whips. Slavery.

1.7 He hits his lover and is remorseful

Obviously he’s consumed with regret, says he was momentarily out of his mind with rage – but the alleged hitting is really only a pretext to invoke a whole host of precedents from myth and legend of psychotically angry heroes like Ajax and Orestes. And after all (he whines), all he did was mess up her hair a little, which made her look even more beautiful, like Atalanta or Ariadne or Cassandra about to be raped at the fall of Troy (!).

To be precise, he grabbed her hair and scratched her face (line 50) – an oddly girlish form of assault. He asks himself why he didn’t do something more manly, such as ripping her dress from neck to waistline (an interesting notion). What’s most effective in the poem is his description of how Corrina didn’t say anything but stood shivering and crying mute tears. That sounds horribly believable.

As a side point, he remarks that, instead of tears, the proper marks of love should be bruised lips and bites around the neck and shoulders. Now, love bites are mentioned in Propertius and in Plutarch’s life of Pompey: it was obviously an accepted part of love play in ancient Rome.

1.8 Dipsas’s monologue

Dipsas is a bawd or procuress. The poet violently describes her as a cursed witch. This is because, one day, he claims to have overheard her giving cynical advice to Corrina on how to bewitch young men and wangle rich gifts out of them, gifts she can then share with her mentor, Dipsas.

He particularly hears Dipsas disrespecting Ovid because he’s poor, telling Corrina to angle for richer lovers, and not even to be fussy about freed slaves, so long as they’re rich. Dipsas tells Corrina to play hard to get, to agree to sex now and then but often say she’s got a headache or abstain because of Isis (attendants at ceremonies for Isis had to be celibate 10 days beforehand). He overhears Dipsas telling Corrina to stage strategic arguments to drive him away, though not permanently. She should learn how to cry at will. She should get a houseboy and a maid, who can both extract even more presents from her desperate lover.

Like the beating poem or the door poem, above, this feels like Ovid adopting a standard topic (the wicked old adviser) and determined to write the best, most comprehensive poem on the theme.

As a footnote to Roman love, Dipsas tells Corrina to cultivate a few bruises on her neck i.e. indicating that she’s having sex with someone else to make her lover jealous. Love bites and bruises.

1.9 The poet compares lovers with soldiers

Both belong to the same age group, lusty young men.

A soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to girls’ houses,
The one assaults city gates, the other front doors.

Obviously this is mocking the martial traditions of Rome, in a style previously done by Propertius, but somehow in Ovid’s hands it feels that much more mocking and derisive. And the poem ends with the mocking thought that he was a lazy good-for-nothing scribbling poems until – he fell in love! Now look at him – ‘fighting fit, dead keen on night exercises’!

1.10 He complains that his mistress is demanding material gifts instead of the gift of poetry

So he mounts a list of arguments why this is corrupt, why love should be naked, why sex should be equal, only prostitutes ask for money or gifts etc. All gifts are trash and will rot, but his poetry, if he gives it to her, will last forever and make her immortal. Another very familiar trope.

1.11 Praise of Corinna’s maid

Let me tell you about Napë. Though she’s expert at setting
Unruly hair, she’s no common lady’s maid.

The poem is set in the present as the poet calls Napë over and instructs her to take this note to his beloved, right now, and wait while she reads it, and mark her expression, and insist on a reply, and not just a brief note but ‘a full tablet’: get her (Corrina) to squeeze up the lines and scribble in the margins.

1.12 The poet curses his tablet

Corrina says NO to a visit and so the poet vents his fury on the wood and wax tablet which failed in its duty, cursing the tree which made the wood, the beeswax etc. It turns into a full blown execration of the wretched tablet, which is inventive and funny.

1.13 He addresses the dawn and asks it to wait, so he can stay longer with his mistress

The poet addresses Aurora asking her to rise slowly, to wait, so he can extend his time with his beloved. He invokes the mythology surrounding Aurora, cruelly claiming she’s only in such a rush each morning to get away from her ancient withered lover, Tithonus.

1.14 He mocks Corinna for ruining her hair by dyeing it

A very uxorious, familiar poem in which the poet scolds his beloved for ignoring his advice to lay off hair dyes and rinses; she used them and now her hair’s all falling out. It used to be so long, could be arranged in a hundred different styles, was so fine, like spider’s web, a ‘brindled auburn’ colour. It was also damaged by her insistence on applying heated tongs to corkscrew it.

Oh well, he says, look on the bright side – after ‘our’ recent German conquests she can get a wig made from some captive German woman’s hair.

1.15 The book ends with Ovid writing of the famous poets of the past, and claiming his name will be among them

He gets the allegorical figure of Envy to articulate all the criticisms which could be made of his position: drone, parasite, layabout who should be using his youth as a soldier or his intellect as a lawyer – then refutes these accusations. He wants to be numbered among the immortal poets:

What I seek is perennial fame,
Undying world-wide remembrance.

Though Time, in time, can consume the enduring ploughshare,
Though flint itself will perish, poetry lives –
Deathless, unfading, triumphant over kings and their triumphs,
Richer than Spanish river-gold.

And here I am, 2,000 years later, reading his poetry, proving him correct.

Preliminary thoughts

1. In his mockery of a soldier’s life, his description of a mock triumph, his jokey comparison of a soldier and a lover (1. 9) Ovid mocks Rome’s military tradition (‘the dusty rewards of a soldier’s career’, 1.15). And in his whole approach promotes the lifestyle of an upper-class layabout lover with no sense of public duty, frittering his life away on girlish emotions. This, as his later career was to make clear, was a risky strategy. As with Oscar Wilde, traditional society eventually took its revenge on a taunting provocateur.

2. In his introduction, Peter Green spends a lot of effort suggesting that ‘Corrina’ is based on a real figure and that it was Ovid’s first wife, who he married when he was just 18. Although the convention for these poems was that the beloved was the wife of another man, high-born and unattainable, or a moody and capricious courtesan – and this certainly fits some of the poems, such as the door poem and the pair about sending a note to his mistress – on the other hand the ‘Corrina was Ovid’s wife’ theory is a better fit for the poems about sex on a summer’s afternoon (1.5), the poem to the dawn and especially the one about her hair (1.14). These have none of the stress of stolen visits while husband is away, but have the relaxed candour of married love.

3. Above all else, the poems feel very programmatic, systematic, as if he’s listed all the topics which poems in this genre ought to address, and then set out to write the best possible example of each type.

4. Ovid’s persona is of supreme self-confidence, a very attractive, brash, bullet-proof, man-about-town cockiness. Even when he pretends to be downhearted we know he’s only playing

5. Lastly, re. Green’s style of verse, I like the way his lines are of unpredictably varying length, they rock along in perfect match with his laddish, demotic diction. BUT. One small point of criticism – I don’t like the way he starts each line with a capital letter. It has the effect of cluttering lines which are already cluttered with italics, brackets, exclamation marks and so on. I wish that, like most modern poets, he’d started new lines with small letters, unless it is actually starting a new sentence.

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
than ignored.

is better than:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

Clearer, easier to read and parse (understand the grammar of), and looks more modern, has more swing.

Book 2

2.1 The poet describes the sort of audience he wants (girls)

A formal opening to the second book by ‘that naughty provincial poet’, ‘the chronicler of his own wanton frivolities’. Ovid describes how he was actually writing a worthy epic about war in heaven when his mistress locked her door against him and straightaway he forgot his epic and fell back on soft love poems, for

Soft words
Remove harsh door-chains. There’s magic in poetry, its power
Can pull down the bloody moon,
Turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder
Or rivers flow upstream.

Yes, ‘epics’s a dead loss for me’:

I’ll get nowhere with swift-footed
Achilles, or either of Atreus’s sons.
Old what’s-his-name wasting twenty years on war and travel,
Poor Hector dragged in the dust –
No good. But lavish fine words on some young girl’s profile
And sooner or later she’ll tender herself as the fee.
An ample reward for your labours. So farewell, heroic
Figures of legend – the quid
Pro quo
you offer won’t tempt me. A bevy of beauties
All swooning over my love songs – that’s what I want.

2.2 The poet asks Bagoas, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress

The poet addresses Bagoas, a beautiful woman’s maid or servant and delivers a long list of reasons why she should engage in all kinds of subterfuges to help her mistress’s lover gain his ends, the main motive being she’ll be paid and can save up enough to buy her freedom (line 40).

What struck me is the poem opens with him describing taking a walk in some cloisters and spying this young woman and being struck by her beauty i.e. it doesn’t seem particularly about Corrina.

2.3: The poet addresses a eunuch (probably Bagoas from 2.2) who is preventing him from seeing a woman

A short poem in which the poet laments the condition of men who’ve been castrated and says they (the poet and his mistress) could have got round the neuter minder anyway, but it seemed more polite to make a direct approach and offer him cash for access.

2.4 The poet describes his love for women of all sorts

Other people are going to criticise his character so why doesn’t he go ahead and do it himself. He despises who he is, his weakness for every pretty face he sees, his lack of self discipline. Thick, clever, shy, forward, sophisticated, naive, fans of his, critics of his, dancers, musicians, tall, short, fashionable, dowdy, fair, dark or brunettes – he’s ‘omnisusceptible’, he wants to shag them all.

Young girls have the looks – but when it comes to technique
Give me an older woman. In short, there’s a vast cross-section
Of desirable beauties in Rome – and I want them all!

2.5 The poet addresses his lover, whom he has seen being unfaithful at a dinner party

Describes the rage of jealousy he’s thrown into when he sees her fondling and snogging another man at a dinner party. When he confronts her, later, about it, she denies it means anything and, like a fool, he believes her. Still. Her kisses show a new style, technique and passion. She’s been learning from a master!

2.6 The poet mourns the death of Corinna’s parrot

A comic exequy for Corrina’s parrot, a gift from the East, who was so sociable and clever and ate so little and now is dead. He gives an extended comparison with all other types of birds ending with a vision of pretty Polly in paradise.

2.7 The poet defends himself to his mistress, who is accusing him of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis (28 lines)

Short one in which he accuses his mistress of being too touchy and jealous. Of course he isn’t having an affair with her maid! God, the thought! Why would he bother with ‘a lower-class drudge’? More to the point:

What gentleman would fancy making love to a servant,
Embracing that lash-scarred back?

‘Lash-scarred back.’ I know I’m developing an obsession with this subject, but the ubiquity in Roman social life of slaves, performing every possible function, present at almost all events, present throughout everybody’s house, who can be chained to the doorpost, who can be shackled and manacled and who can be stripped and whipped at a moment’s notice, seriously impairs my enjoyment of these ‘light-hearted’ poems.

2.8 The poet addresses Cypassis, asking her to keep their affair a secret from her mistress

The joke is that, having just denied it in 2.7, he now lets us in on the secret that he is shagging his mistress’s slave. The poem bespeaks the furtiveness of a secret affair. Did they get away with it when Corrina accused him point blank? When Cypassis blushed, did the poet’s fierce oath that it wasn’t true convince her? Now – he wants sex.

I did you a good turn. Now it’s time for repayment.
Dusky Cypassis, I want to sleep with you. Today.

‘Dusky’? Is she black?

2.9a The poet rebukes Cupid (24 lines)

He blames Cupid for trapping him in this life of love for good. The old soldier can retire, an old racehorse is put out to grass, warships are dry docked, an old gladiator can hang up his sword. Why won’t Cupid let him go?

2.9b The poet professes his addiction to love (30 lines)

He admits to sometimes feeling sick of the whole business of love but some kink in his nature addicts him to it. He just can’t kick the habit of loving and shagging. He’s Cupid’s best customer, his arrows know the way to his heart without needing to be fire. They’re more at home in his heart than Cupid’s quiver. He sounds quite a bit more tired and cynical than previously:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

2.10 The poet bemoans being in love with two girls at once

The poet addresses a man, Graecinus, and makes you realise it’s the first time he’s done so on 25 poems. A lot of Tibullus and Propertius’s poems are addressed to other blokes; surprisingly, this is rare in Ovid. Maybe showing how much of a lady’s man he is.

Anyway, this Graecinus told him no man could possibly fall in love with two women and yet – here he is, in love with two women! It seems like an unnecessary surfeit but he’d rather have two than none at all. And he proceeds to show off a bit:

I can stand the strain. My limbs may be thin, but they’re wiry;
Though I’m a lightweight, I’m hard –
And virility feeds on sex, is boosted by practice;
No girl’s ever complained about my technique.
Often enough I’ve spent the whole night in pleasure, yet still been
Fit as a fighting cock next day.

He wants to die in mid-act, ‘on the job’.

2.11 Corinna’s voyage (56 lines)

He deploys the full range of arguments against taking a sea voyage (the danger, the monsters, the boredom) but Corrina is determined to go, so he switches to wishing her good luck.

2.12 His triumph (28 lines)

Meaning Roman triumph because the poet has, finally, despite all obstacles, won his Corrina. Again he compares himself to a soldier, conscripted and fighting in great battles , except:

The credit is mine alone, I’m a one-man band,
Commander, cavalry, infantry, standard-bearer, announcing
With one voice: Objective achieved!

What’s odd is we saw him having lazy summer afternoon sex with Corrina back in 1.5, so why is ‘winning’ her, here, depicted as such a huge triumph? Is it a reminder that we should never take these poems as telling any kind of coherent narrative, but more a selection, arranged in a vague but not narrative-based order?

2.13 The poet prays to the gods about Corinna’s abortion (28 lines)

Corrina has carried out an abortion on herself and now lies badly ill. The poet addresses the goddesses Isis and Ilythia, saying he’ll do anything for them offer them anything, if only his beloved recovers. If we’re talking about possible narratives and orders, it is odd to have a poem this serious immediately after the one in which he claims to only just have ‘triumphed’ and won her (2.12).

2.14 The poet condemns abortion (44 lines)

A fairly playful development of the anti-abortion position, to wit: if every woman acted like Corrina the human race would die out. This is followed by a list of amusing counterfactuals: what if Thetis had carried out an abortion? No Achilles, no defeat of Troy. Or what if the priestess of Mars had done the same? No Romulus and Remus, no Rome. What if Corrina’s mum had done the same? No Corrina! Or Ovid’s mum, if he’d been ‘mother-scuppered before birth’? No Amores!

From a social history point of view the poem makes clear that self-attempted abortion was quite a common occurrence in ancient Rome and equally common girls dying from it (line 40).

2.15 The ring (28 lines)

He sends her a ring and then, in flights of fantasy, imagines being the ring, fitting snugly on her finger, accompanying the finger when it strokes her skin, her cleavage or…elsewhere.

2.16 At Sulmona, a town in his native region (52 lines)

His home town, Sulmona, is lovely and fertile and all…but his girl isn’t with him so it feels barren and strange. Suddenly, urgently, he wills her to call out her cart, harness the quick-stepping ponies and make haste to be with him.

2.17 His devotion to Corrina (34 lines)

Corrina’s loveliness makes her treat him like dirt. He describes beautiful legendary women who paired with less attractive men e.g. Venus and Vulcan, and then compares them to the way the hexameter and pentameter are combined in the elegiac couplet.

Well, look at the metre I’m using – that limps. But together
Long and short lines combine
In a heroic couplet.

Apparently some other woman is going round claiming to be the ‘Corrina’ of his poems, but gently and sweetly he assures her she is his only beloved.

…none but you shall be sung
In my verses, you and you only shall give my creative
Impulse its shape and theme.

2.18 The death of tragedy (40 lines)

He writes to his friend Macer, a poet who appears to have been writing a epic poem describing the events leading up to the Iliad describing having another go at writing a tragedy but how not only his Muse mocked him but then Corrina came and sat on his lap and covered him and kisses and asked why he wasn’t writing about her. Oh, what the hell, he might as well stick to what he’s good at, ‘verse lectures on seduction’ or ‘love-lorn heroines’ letters’ (referring to the Heroides).

Interestingly, he appears to imply that another friend of his, Sabinus, also a poet, had written letters in which the absent menfolk reply to the letters listed in the Heroides. If he did, they’re now lost.

2.19 To a husband to be more protective of his wife (60 lines)

Ironic satirical poem written to the husband of another woman who he’s seeking to woo (not Corrina) telling him (the husband) to take more care of her because at the moment, seducing her is just too easy! He prefers a battle, a struggle, the thrill of the chase.

Then the addressee seems to change to the woman in question, ‘my latest eye-ravisher’. He tells her to copy Corrina who was a master of teasing him, throwing temper tantrums, then relenting, leading him on, rebuffing him, exciting his ardour.

That’s the way I like it, that feeds the flame.

Then back to the husband and a very funny sequence of mounting frustration at his relaxed complaisance. Be more jealous, put your foot down, be a man for God’s sake. There’s no fun in an easy conquest.

Book 3

3.1 Elegy and Tragedy

Walking in a wood, the poet encounters the allegorical figure of Tragedy who tells him it’s time to grow up, drop ballads for schoolgirls and produce a really serious work. But then appears Elegy (with one foot shorter than the other, harping on that at fact of the elegiac metre, hexameter followed by pentameter) who tells Tragedy not to be so condescending, and then tells both of them what she’s been through, pinned to closed doors, torn up and flushed down the loo. If Tragedy’s interested in Ovid, it’s because of what Elegy’s done for him.

The poet asks the two ladies to stop quarrelling and admits that he chooses Elegy (again) and Tragedy will just have to be patient. (It is a big irony of history that Ovid did apparently write a tragedy, on the subject of Medea, and it was praised by Tacitus and Quintilian, but, very unhappily, it has been lost. Or ironically, in the context of this poem.)

3.2 At the races (84 lines)

A vivid description of our man chatting up a girl in the audience of the chariot races. In Green’s translation it’s a stream-of-consciousness account as the poet compares himself to a chariot racer, asks other members of the audience to stop poking and cramping them, begs Venus to give him luck with his new amour.

He describes a fixed feature of the races, which was the entrance of a procession (pompa) of ivory statues of the gods, borne on wagons or floats, which made its way through the Forum and into the Circus and proceeded the entire length of the racetrack to the cheers of the vast audience. The poet gives a running commentary on the images of the gods and how they’re useful to him, and then commentates on an actual race, yelling for the chariot his amour has bet on to win.

3.3 The lie (84 lines)

Ovid laments that his lover has not been punished for lying. He blames the gods for letting beautiful women get away with murder but coming down like a ton of bricks on men.

3.4 Give her freedom (48 lines)

Ovid warns a man about overprotectively trying to guard his wife from adultery. Do the opposite, give her complete freedom and watch her lose interest. We only chafe for what we can’t get. If it’s suddenly all available, we lose interest. ‘Illicit passion is sweeter.’ Doesn’t seem to be about Corrina.

3.5 The dream (46 lines)

The poet describes having a dream about a white heifer who is joined in a field by a black bull, but a black crow comes and starts pecking at the heifer’s breast till she stands up and waddles off to another herd of cows in the distance.

The poet asks the dream interpreter (an oneirocrit) who’s listened to his recounting, what it means, and the interpreter says that he, Ovid, is the black bull, the white heifer is his beloved, and the crow is a bawd who comes and pesters her to leave him (the poet) and go off to seek riches elsewhere.

At these words the blood ran freezing
From my face and the world went black before my eyes.

This, for me, is one of the most effective poems in the set, maybe because it’s so unusual, so unlike the familiar tropes of the genre.

3.6 The flooded river (106 lines)

The poet had got up early to make a journey to see his lover and finds his way blocked by a swollen stream. First he complains to the river about being so damn inconvenient. Then he claims the river ought to be helping him not hindering and rattles off a page-long list of rivers and how they helped lovers, or were themselves lovers, back in mythological times – although, knowing as ever, he emphasises that these old stories are:

All lies, old poetic nonsense
That never really happened – and never will.

Despite this brash dismissal, the poem is unusually long precisely because it contains a dramatised version of one these old ‘lies’, the legend of Ilia the Vestal Virgin ravished by the river Anio.

And the poem ends with an amusing execration of the river that’s blocking his path, barely a proper river at all, a desert of stones and dust in the summer, then an unpredictable torrent in winter, not marked on any maps, just a ‘no-name dribble’!

3.7 Erectile dysfunction (84 lines)

Also unusually long. The poem is about a time he lay in his beloved’s arms and she tried every trick in the book (French kisses, dirty words, called him ‘Master’) to no avail:

My member hung slack as though frozen by hemlock,
A dead loss for the sort of game I’d planned.
There I lay, a sham, a deadweight, a trunk of inert matter…

I wonder if Ovid is really as much of a Jack the Lad in the original Latin as Green’s zingy English makes him sound:

It’s not all that long since I made it
Twice with that smart Greek blonde, three times
With a couple of other beauties – and as for Corrina,
In one short night, I remember, she made me perform
Nine times, no less!

The poem is interesting because it puts his ‘love’ for Corrina in the context of sleeping with umpteen other girls as well i.e. it is nowhere near as devoted and obsessive as Propertius’s love for Cynthia, let alone the high devotion of Courtly Love which was to invoke his memory over a thousand years later.

He wonders whether some jealous rival has commissioned a magician to put a hex on him, laments that she was such a beautiful girl and yet no dice; compared to the moment when he’s actually writing, when his member is standing stiff and proud to attention, ‘you bastard’ (line 69). After trying everything, eventually his girl got cross, accused him of recently sleeping with someone else, flounced out of bed and – to fool her maids that something had happened – splashed around with some water for a bit.

Is this the reason why his beloved appears to have abandoned him in 3.5 and appears to be going out with a soldier, described in the next poem as having more money than Ovid, but maybe just being able to…get it up.

3.8 The cure of money (66 lines)

He can’t believe his beloved is now dating a soldier, just because he has money from his campaigns. This develops into a traditional curse on gold and greed, and a lament on the decline since the idyllic days of Saturn (the so-called Saturnia regna) the lost Golden Age when gold and precious metals lay in the ground. Instead gold rules Rome now and leaves a poor lover like him unable to compete with a rich soldier, flashing his rings and stolen treasure (boo hoo).

In his notes Green adds resonance by pointing out that Ovid was not well off but prided himself from coming from an old established family and not being a parvenu like so many of the nouveaux riches who had made a fortune and acquired status through the disruptions of the civil wars. Soldiers who’d done well in the wars or merchants who’d bought up proscribed land, speculators and bankers. Ovid, like hard-up poets throughout history, despised them all.

Me, genius, out in the cold,
Traipsing round like a fool, replaced by some new-rich soldier,
A bloody oaf who slashed his way to the cash
And a knighthood!

An interesting footnote points out that that the beloved who’s been taken by another man is married i.e. has swapped adultery with Ovid for adultery with the soldier. No mention of Corrina’s name.

3.9 An elegy for Tibullus (68 lines)

He says Cupid has doused his torch and broken his bow in sorrow at the death of Tibullus, the great elegiac poet (thought by scholars to have died in autumn 19 BC). There can be no gods if such good men are allowed to die. While his body is rendered down to an urnful of ashes, only the poet’s work, his songs, survive, and for all time.

Green, in his notes, points out the structural similarity with the epicedion or funeral lament for Corrina’s parrot (2.6) and that both follow the same five-part structure:

  1. introductory address to the mourners
  2. the laudatio including the ‘what avails it…’ theme, and a ritual outburst (schetliasmós) against unjust fate
  3. the deathbed scene
  4. consolatio
  5. the burial itself followed by a prayer for the repose of the dead

Interestingly, Ovid confirms the names of the two beloved women mentioned in Tibullus’s elegies, claiming that at his pyre Delia and Nemesis squabbled over who loved him most. Then says his soul will be greeted in Elysium by Catullus (84 to 54 BC) and Gaius Cornelius Gallus (69 to 26 BC), his predecessors in elegiac poetry.

3.10 The Festival of Ceres (48 lines)

The annual festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from making love to his mistress, which leads into an extended description of the rise of Ceres and her own godly love affairs.

3.11a Enough (32 lines)

He’s finally had enough of his lover, enough of being shown the door, grovelling in the street, while she was shagging someone else inside, then watch his rival, exhausted by sex, stumble out into the street. He is ashamed of watching her send secret signals at dinner parties to other men; of her broken promises. Enough! ‘I’m not the fool I was.’

3.11b Conflicted (20 lines)

He is conflicted. He loves and hates:

Your morals turn me off, your beauty on
So I can live neither with you or without you.

He loves and lusts after his lover but describes her infidelity and betrayals. He wishes she were less attractive so he can more easily escape her grasp.

3.12 (44 lines)

Ovid laments that his poetry has attracted others to his lover, led them to her front door.

What good have my poems done me? They’ve brought me nothing but trouble.

So he’s sick not just of Corrina but of poetry, or these kinds of poems – fat lot of good they’ve done him. He claims that poets’ statements shouldn’t be taken for fact, they’re much more suited to making up wild fantasies – and then goes off on a page-long digression listing some of the most florid Greek myths.

Oh, creative poetic licence
Is boundless, and unconstrained
By historical fact

A thought worth keeping in mind when we come to the Metamorphoses.

3.13 The Festival of Juno (36 lines)

A relatively chaste poem in which he describes the festival of Juno (‘sacrifice of a heifer; crowded games’) taking place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins, describing at some length, the shrine, the procession of youths and shy maidens and so on. He ends by hoping Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

Green makes the point that the poem breaks the cardinal rule of love elegies by mentioning his wife! At a stroke this dose of spousal affection and family piety undermines the elaborate poses of the entire series. Unless, like Green, you take the rather mind-boggling view that Corrina may be based on Ovid’s wife. Personally, my experience of reading the other elegists (Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius) suggests to me that these sequences are more random, and contain more random elements, than modern tidy-minded critics would like. To us a poem about his wife breaks the fourth wall, undermines the illusion of the hard-shagging, lover-about-town image promulgated in the other poems.

3.14 Keep it to yourself (50 lines)

Ovid sounds tired, resigned. He doesn’t mind if his beloved has other affairs, but can she just keep it to herself. He describes the passion of the bedroom (stripping off, twining thigh over thigh, French kissing, ecstatic moans, the bed rattling like mad) but when you reappear in public, affect respectability and virtue. Instead of which his beloved enjoys feeding tittle-tattle about her sex life to gossips. Must she flaunt her dishevelled hair, the unmade bed, those live bites? So disappointing, so vulgar. Every time she confesses another liaison it kills him by inches. Can’t she please just deny her countless other trysts and so let him live in ignorant bliss.

3.15 Farewell to love elegy (20 lines)

Mother of tender loves, you must find another poet;
My elegies are homing on their final lap.

This final very short poem gives a brief potted biography of him, not from a rich family, but an ancient and distinguished one; from the little town of Sulmona in the region of Paelignia, which fought so bravely against Rome in the Social Wars. Farewell to elegiac verse;

Horned Bacchus is goading me on to weightier efforts, bigger
Horses, a really ambitious trip.

What’s he referring to? The Metamorphoses?

Brief summary

Reviewing the Amores I can well see how Ovid took the stock subjects or topics of the genre, one by one, and took them to the limit, developing each premise to sometimes absurd extents, stuffing each poem with the maximum number of relevant mythological references, including all possible relevant emotions – but at the same time he quite visibly did it as a joke, as a game, playfully, ironically, knowingly. Homo ludens. Thus I can see the force of A.M. Juster’s point that Ovid both a) exhausted the possibilities of the content of the genre but, more profoundly b) undermined all future attempts to take it seriously. He killed it.

Latin terminology

  • consolatio – type of ceremonial oratory, typically used rhetorically to comfort mourners at funeral
  • epicedion – funeral lament
  • exclusus amator – the shut-out lover
  • Homo ludens – playful man, game-playing man
  • laudatio – epitaph in praise of someone who’s died, often a loved one
  • paraclausithyron – poem at the beloved’s door
  • rusticitas – rusticity, the quality of country life and people, by extension, lack of education, idiocy
  • schetliasmós – ritual outburst against unjust fate
  • servitium amoris – servant of love
  • urbanitas – city fashions or manners; refinement, politeness, courtesy, urbanity, sophistication; of speech – delicacy, elegance or refinement of speech; wit, humor

Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Elegy 1.2 by Tibullus

This is a free adaptation of book one, elegy two, by the Roman poet Tibullus (55 to 19 BC). It’s based on the translation by A.M Juster in the Oxford University Press edition of Tibullus’s elegies. Juster’s version appears to give a pretty close translation of the Latin, in meaning and metre; mine is intended as a very free adaptation.

By this, I mean I’ve followed the logic and sense of Juster’s translation pretty closely but rephrased everything. Why? To try to make it roll and flow more smoothly, to give it more zing, to make it more fun to read.

In my opinion Juster’s attempt to replicate the precise metre of the original – elegiac couplets with the first line a hexameter and the second a pentameter – although a worthy aim, results in his translation feeling crabbed and constipated. From everything I’ve read, Tibullus’s elegiacs were thought by contemporaries to be stylish and attractive. So I’ve largely ignored the elegiac format – more accurately, left it as a buried foundation – and let every line do its own thing.

My adaptation doesn’t try to be elegant, exactly. I simply aim to make it fun and attractive and immediately understandable. (Also because doing an exercise like this really helps you climb inside a poem and understand how it is made.)

Elegy 2.1 by Tibullus

Pour me unwatered wine and let it drench
my grief, let sleep control my eyes
and when my brain is blurred by Bacchus let no one
wake me, let pointless passion sleep.

For my love’s held hostage by a grouchy guard
and shut up tight behind a bolted door.
O may the pelting rain attack that door
and Jupiter send jagged lightning to destroy it.

O please door, open just a pinch for me,
O hinge swing open, slyly, silently.
I’m sorry I was rude to you before,
I was mad with frustration, I admit it, my bad,
but remember I’ve also been respectful to you and kind,
promised you rewards, hung flowers on your frame.

Come lovely Delia, come out, deceive your guard,
remember Venus’s motto: who dares wins!
It’s Venus helps a boy sneak into his lover’s house,
It’s Venus helps a girl pick doorlocks with a hairpin,
It’s Venus shows how to tiptoe from the marital bed,
how to step silently across the bedroom floor,
how, even though she’s sitting next to her husband at dinner,
a woman can give secret signs to her breathless lover.

Venus doesn’t venture these gifts to just anybody,
only to those with life in them, willing to take risks.
For when I’m roaming through the darkened streets
Venus is there to make my passage safe,
making sure I don’t meet some midnight mugger,
keen to stab me, or steal my stuff at knifepoint.

After all, someone in love should travel safely,
protected by the gods, unafraid of attack.
These freezing winter nights don’t bother me,
nor do the heavy showers saturate me.
Nothing can harm me if sweet Delia
opens her door, smiles, and snaps her fingers.

Hey! Whoever that is, walking up towards me,
stop staring, Venus likes her business to be kept secret.
Stop scaring everyone with your clumsy feet, don’t ask
our names, stop waving that bloody torch about!
If anybody happens to see us whispering at the door,
keep schtum, tell the cops you don’t remember nowt.
And if anybody wants to tell tales, they’ll soon find out
why Venus is the child of savage seas and blood!

Mind you, even if people tattle, Delia’s ‘husband’ won’t believe it –
A sorceress assures me he’s been put under a spell.
This witch, I’ve seen her call down the stars from heaven,
divert a raging river with her magic.
Her incantations split the earth, her charms
raise up the dead and bring burned bones back whole from the pyre.
She can drum up demons with her mystic moaning,
then rein them in with the help of sprinkled milk.
Whenever she likes she can chase clouds out of the skies
or summon up snow in summer, if she wants.
Only she has the poisonous herbs which belonged to Medea,
only she tamed the baying hounds of Hecate.

She made a spell to help Delia deceive her husband.
You chant it three times, then three times spit on the floor
and her husband won’t believe anything bad he hears about us,
not even if he found us at it in their bed.

Should I trust this witch? Well, she told me
she could rid me of my love with spells and herbs,
and cleanse me with a pine torch. Late one night
she sacrificed a black beast to the gods of hell.
I wasn’t asking for my love to end, just for it
to become fair between us; I could never leave you, Delia.

O your husband is cold as iron! When he could have had you,
he preferred to go off to war, pursuing plunder.
Well, let him go slaughter the soldiers of Cilicia
and pitch his camp on captured ground.
Let him pose magnificently astride his horse,
strong arms sheathed in stolen gold and silver.

But Delia, just to be with you I would
be happy to yoke oxen and feed sheep on windswept hillsides.
If I could only hold you in my enfolding arms
I’d gladly kip out nights on the stony ground.
What good is lying in a silky Tyrian bed
if I’m without you, loveless, lost in tears?
Not the softest feathers nor the cleanest sheets,
nor the sound of tinkling fountains, nothing could console me.

If I have offended Venus with some of my ranting,
then let my guilty mouth forfeit the price.
People saying I defiled the temples
and stole garlands from altars to decorate your door.
If I’m guilty, I’ll willingly fall full-length before those altars
and kiss their thresholds with my penitent lips,
and crawl on my knees through dirt, as holy penance,
and beat my head against their holy pillars.

But you, passerby, standing there and laughing at me,
while I go through all these turmoils – you beware!
The gods won’t punish me forever, it’ll be your turn soon.
I’ve seen a mature man who mocked a lovestruck youth
himself fall victim to the chains of Venus,
attempt seductive speeches with a shaking voice,
try to comb over his grey hair with his hand,
reduced to hovering by his beloved’s door
and pestering her servants in the market.
I saw young men surrounding him and laughing,
spitting on their chests to ward off the old man’s curses.

Oh spare me, Venus! I will serve you loyally.
I am a rich harvest of devotion, don’t let your anger ruin me.


Roman reviews

The elegies of Tibullus translated by A.M. Juster (2012)

But if you’re slow you shall be lost! How fast the time
escapes – the days don’t linger or return!
How fast the earth relinquishes its purple hues!
How fast tall poplars lose their gorgeous leaves!
(Book 1, elegy 4)

The Oxford University Press edition of the elegies of Tibullus is a lovely artefact to hold and own. It’s beautifully produced, with a stylish line drawing of a woman in Victorian dress adorning the white cover, and the print quality and page layout on the inside feels just as light and clear and stylish.

Three authors

The text is the product of three authors.

1. Albius Tibullus himself was one of the leading writers of ‘elegiacs’ as the Roman republic turned into the Roman empire under the rule of Augustus. We have no certain evidence for either of his dates, but scholars guesstimate he was born between 55 and 49 BC and died soon after 19 BC, so at an early age of between 30 and 35.

Tibullus was a member of the equestrian class and so well-off, despite the conventional claims of ‘poverty’ made in his poems. All these poets claimed ‘poverty’ because it was one of the conventions of the genre; it didn’t mean what we think of as poverty so much as indicate their moral probity, putting them on the side of simple, traditional, rural values against the luxury and decadence of the city rich.

Tibullus is mentioned in some of the poems of his contemporaries Horace (65 to 8 BC) and Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD). Tibullus published just 2 books of elegies amounting to just 16 poems in all (book 1, 10 elegies, book 2, 6 elegies). This edition contains the full Latin texts of all 16.

(In fact, the state of Tibullus’s poems is messier than this simple layout suggests; a third and fourth book of elegies survives from antiquity but most scholars think they are not his work, while some of the canonical 16 have issues of order and logic which suggest they may have been tampered with. All this is discussed in the introduction but, as it were, buried in the crisp, clear formal layout of the text itself.)

2. This edition also contains an admirably to-the-point introduction and thorough and useful notes by Tibullus scholar Robert Maltby. We learn that these are taken from Maltby’s own larger, more scholarly edition of Tibullus, cut down and focused for this OUP paperback. Many notes for classic texts are obvious and trite, for example telling you who Julius Caesar or Mars were. Maltby’s notes are outstanding, clarifying all the unusual references in each poem, and consistently going deeper than the obvious, telling us fascinating things about Roman social practices and delving deep into the origins of the gods or the stories of the many figures from myth and legend who Tibullus mentions.

3. And the third author is the translator of the poems themselves, award-winning American poet, translator and essayist A.M. Juster.

What is an elegy?

The modern sense of ‘elegy’ as a lament for the dead only crystallised during the 16th century. 2,000 years ago, in the ancient Greeks and Romans the word had a much wider definition – elegies could cover a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war).

The defining feature of them is that they were written in elegiac couplets or ‘elegiacs’, which consist of a dactylic hexameter verse followed by a dactylic pentameter verse i.e. six ‘feet’ in the first line, five in the second. Juster repeats this format fairly precisely, producing couplets whose first line has six beats, the second line, five beats. 6 then 5.

My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight.

I’ve often tried to banish pains of love with wine,
but sorrow turned the uncut wine to tears.

The effect was to create a kind of dying fall, hence its attraction for poets who wanted to write an elegy in our sense and the elegiac couplet was in fact the metre used for writing funeral inscriptions and sometimes these found their way into elegiac poems (Tibullus includes a few in his poems). However, the most famous of the Roman elegists copied the way that late Greek or Hellenistic poets had used it to express personal and often amatory subject matter.

Elegiac couplets were felt to be appropriate for the expression of ‘direct and immediate concerns’, by contrast with the hexameter which was felt to be the metre for continuous narrative, as in Homer’s epics.

Catullus was the first Roman poet to co-opt the form from the Greek Hellenistic poets and adapt it to Latin. He was followed by Tibullus (in his elegies), Propertius (in his elegies) and Ovid (in the Amores, Heroides, Tristia and Letters from Pontus).

Elegiac couplets were also used for actual funeral inscriptions on gravestones,

Love poems

The classic Roman elegists used the form to write love poems, often (apparently) surprisingly candid about their own love affairs. The convention quickly arose of devoting some or all of the poems to a beloved mistress, who receives the poet’s devotion despite being often capricious or antagonistic.

Catullus can be said to have invented many aspects of this convention in his poems to Lesbia, universally taken as a pseudonym for the Roman aristocrat Clodia Metelli with whom he (if the poems are to be believed) had a passionate affair and then an equally emotional falling out. Tibullus’s contemporary, Propertius, addresses his elegies to the figure of ‘Cynthia’. A little later, Ovid addresses a figure named ‘Corinna’, though there is widespread agreement that she probably didn’t exist but was a poetic convention.

Tibullus’s lovers

Tibullus for his part, addresses three figures in his short collection: Book 1 addresses a figure called called Delia (the later Roman writer claimed, Apuleius, claimed that her real name was Plania). The poems are in no logical order so don’t portray a clear narrative. Sometimes she is referred to as single, sometimes as married. Some of the poems imply their relationship began when her husband was away serving with the army in Cilicia. At some point the poet discovers that Delia has another lover. When her husband returns, the poet now has two rivals!

Meanwhile, some of the poems in book 1 also address a boy, Marathus. The three poems centred on Marathus constitute the longest poetic project in Roman literature having homosexual love as theme, being 1.4, 1.8 and 1.9.

In the second book the place of Delia is taken by ‘Nemesis‘, who appears in 2.3, 2.4 and 2.6. Nemesis is clearly a pseudonym, given that it is the name of a famous goddess. This person was probably a high-class courtesan and appears to have had other admirers besides Tibullus. In the Nemesis poems Tibullus complains bitterly of his bondage, and of her rapacity and hard-heartedness. In spite of all, however, she seems to have retained her hold on him until his death.

Tibullus’s patron

Tibullus’s patron was the statesman and general, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. The introduction tells us that Corvinus was patron of a circle of poets which included Propertius and the young Ovid, and was himself an author of poetry. He was ‘a stickler for purity of style in Latin’, which may go some way to explaining the elegance of Latin diction which Tibullus is noted for.

Although an old school republican, Corvinus allied himself with the new regime and served as co-consul with Augustus in 31 BC. Seen from this perspective, Tibullus’s praise of rural values, respect for the traditional gods, support of his patron and his son, all fall into line with the tendency of Augustan propaganda. Doesn’t exactly explain, but makes sense of, the extended passage in 2.5 where Tibullus gives a compressed account of the ancient origins of Rome – the odyssey of Aeneas, the war with Turnus, the prophecies of the Sibyl and so on – which echo or parallel the themes of the Aeneid by Virgil, who Tibullus certainly knew.

That said, Tibullus nowhere actually mentions Octavius/Augustus (unlike the numerous praising references found in Virgil and Horace) and his positive references to Egypt and its religion (Isis, Osiris) in elegy 1.7 also run counter to Augustan propaganda, which was vehemently anti-Egyptian.

The poems

I propose to summarise the content of each poem, then, because they are stuffed with references to myth and legend alongside details of Roman social life, to note any bits of social history which interest me. At the end I’ll discuss Juster’s translation.

Book 1 contains 10 poems just as Horace’s first book of satires does and Virgil’s 10 eclogues. Publication allowed a poet to arrange poems very much not in chronological order, but thematically.

1.1 (78 lines)

May someone else assemble wealth of gleaming gold
and hold vast plots of cultivated land,
one who would fear the constant toil of lurking foes,
one whose sleep flees when Mars’ trumpets blare.
May poverty provide me with an idle life
while steady fire burns within my hearth…

First poems in collections set out the themes and announce the tone. Tibullus’s describes his longing for the simple life on a rural farm, planting fruit trees and vines himself and piously worshipping the country gods. This is contrasted with the ambition for glory of his patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, himself an orator and poet as well as a statesman and military commander. Only at line 57 is Delia introduced, at whose door the poet waits. He imagines his own funeral where she weeps for him.

1.2 (100 lines)

Pour more unwatered wine, and let it overcome
fresh grief so sleep controls my weary eyes
and, when my brow is Bacchus-bludgeoned, may no man
awaken me as barren passion rests.
My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight…

The ancient Greeks were great for categorising everything, particularly in the arts. So they had a name for the type of poem describing a lovelorn lover struck outside the locked door of his beloved. It was called a paraklausithyron (melos) meaning ‘(a song) at the locked door’. Propertius wrote one (where the door itself speaks) and Ovid, too (where he addresses the doorkeeper).

Delia has been put under lock and key by her husband. The poet says he’ll get drunk to drown his sorrows, appeals to the door to let him in, then Delia to come and open it. He describes the many ways Venus helps illicit lovers. Then tells us he’s paid a witch to help his affair and describes here (awesome) powers. Unlike his rival who went off to win glory in war, all the poet wants is a quiet rural idyll with his Delia.

Historical notes: everyone else seems to ignore it but I am brought up short by the ubiquity of slavery in ancient Rome. Some Roman householders kept a door slave chained to their front door, to greet visitors and manage its opening and closing.

1.3 (94 lines)

Messalla, you will sail Aegean seas without me.
O that your staff and you remember me!
Phaeacia confines me, sick, in foreign lands;
grim Death, please keep your greedy hands away!

The poet has fallen ill at the island of Corfu, while accompanying his patron, Messalla, on official business to the East. The poem links together a number of reflections on this situation. He bids farewell to Messalla, who’s sailing on without him. He remembers parting from Delia in Rome, which leads him to ask Delia’s favourite deity, Isis, for a cure. He expresses his own preference for the good old traditional Roman gods, and then to contrast the Golden Age of Saturn with the present Age of Iron, with its endless wars. He imagines dying and being led by Venus to the Elysium reserved for devoted lovers, as opposed to the Tartarus or hell reserved for those who scorn love. Finally he imagines arriving back in Rome and his loving reception by Delia.

Note: the cult of Isis spread from the East to Rome during the first century BC and became popular among women of Delia’s class: the mistresses of both Propertius and Ovid were said to be devotees. Isis was worshipped twice a day, once before sunrise, once in the afternoon. At religious ceremonies women untied their hair, which was usually bound and braided. Isis’s male priests had completely shaven heads. Isis demanded of her female devotees periods of sexual abstinence, often ten days in duration which rankled with the sex-obsessed male elegists.

1.4 (84 lines)

‘Priapus, so a shady cover may be yours
and neither sun nor snowfall hard your head,
how does your guile enthrall the gorgeous boys?’

We’ve only had three poems mentioning Tibullus’s passionate love for Delia before the sequence is interrupted by a completely unexpected hymn to pederasty i.e. adult male love for adolescent boys. This is one of the three poems on the subject of Tibullus’s love for the boy Marathus. Homosexual love was fairly frequent in the Greek tradition but was avoided by the Romans (although it appears in some of Virgil’s Eclogues and Virgil is reported as having been gay).

The poem takes the form of an address to Priapus, the god of fertility. Tibullus invokes the god who then takes over the poem and delivers a mock lecture on the art of loving boys, which comes in 6 sections:

  • beware the attractions of boys ‘who will always offer grounds for love’
  • be patient, ‘his neck will bit by bit accept a yoke’
  • do not hesitate to use false oaths, for the Father forgives oaths sworn ‘in lust’
  • do not delay too long
  • do whatever your boy wishes, ‘love wins most by subservience’
  • Priapus laments the current fallen times when youths value money more than love and poetry!

Only at this point do we learn the lecture is meant to be passed on by Tibullus to his friend Titius, but Titius’s wife won’t allow him to make use of it and so Tibullus himself will, reluctantly, have to become ‘a teacher of love.’

May those deceived by tricks
of cunning lads proclaim me as the expert!
To each his source of pride! For me it’s counselling
spurned lovers.

The notion of a ‘love teacher’ was common in Greek New Comedy and so crops up in the plays of Plautus, who pinched the plots of all his plays from the Greeks. Soon after Tibullus, it was to form the basis of Ovid’s humorous poems, The Art of Love and The Remedy For Love.

Note: at their initiation the priests of the Mother goddess, Cybele, castrated themselves in a frenzy to the sound of Phrygian flutes (and, you would imagine, screams of pain).

1.5 (76 lines)

I claimed I took the break-up well, and I was tough,
but my persistent pride is now long gone,
since, like a top with string, I move on level ground
while whirled by talents of a skilful lad…

The second paraklausithyron or ‘locked outside the lover’s door’ poem. The narrator thought he could bear a separation from his beloved, but he can’t. His devotion helped restore her to health when she was ill by performing various magic rites; but now she has taken another lover. He had dreamed of an idyllic life in the country with her but now these dreams are scattered like winds across perfumed Armenia. He’s tried to forget her through wine and other women, who blame his impotence on her witchcraft, but really it’s her beauty which has bewitched him. A bawd or madam has introduced her to a rich lover. The poet delivers an extravagant curse of this ‘witch’. The poet pleads the true love of the poor lover (i.e. himself) but alas, doors only open for cash now.

The poem is structurally interesting because it mentions many of the points described in 1.2 and shows how each one has deteriorated.

Notes: burning and branding were typical punishments for slaves. The Romans had a word for slaves born into a household, a verna. Such slaves appear to have been treated more indulgently and so were more likely to chat and confide than slaves bought from outside.

The ‘curse poem’ was a full-blown literary genre in Hellenistic Greek poetry.

1.6 (86 lines)

You always flatter me, Love, so I’m snared, though later,
to my sorrow, you are harsh and sad.
Why are you so cruel to me? Or is there special glory
when a god has set a human trap?

The final Delia poem. Even more disillusioned than in 1.5, the poet realises Delia didn’t have a new lover forced on her by the bawd who he so extravagantly cursed in 1.5 but has, of her own free will, taken a new lover. He starts off attacking the god of love, Amor. He addresses Delia’s husband, itemising all the tricks whereby they deceived him then makes the outrageous suggestion that the husband give Delia to him (the poet) to protect. A spooky description of a priestess of the war goddess, Bellona, prophesying that anyone who touches a girl under love’s protection will lose his wealth should be a warning to her rich lover. He admits Delia is not to blame and should not be harmed, not least on account of her mother, who helped the couple in their affair. The poem ends with an appeal to Delia to be faithful and a description of the miserable old age of the faithless woman.

The irony throughout the poem is that Tibullus has been undone by his own tricks being performed, now, by another lover. Only in the notes to this poem does it become clear that Delia doesn’t have a ‘husband’ in the legal sense. So is she the kept courtesan of a rich man who, when he was away, took Tibullus as a lover and now has taken another? This version add pity to the vision of her as a widow without any legal rights and having to make a pitiful living by weaving which the poem ends on.

It’s impressive how there have only been five poems about Delia and yet it feels like I’ve read an entire novel about their affair, packed with emotions and vivid details.

Notes: In his description of his ‘enslavement’ to Delia, the poet says he is ready to accept ‘the cruel stripes and the shackles’ which are reserved for slaves.

1.7 (64 lines)

While spinning threads of fate a god cannot unwind,
the Parcae prophesied about this day,
this one that would disperse the tribes of Aquitaine,
that made the bravely conquered Atur tremble…

A song of pretty sycophantic praise to his patron, Messalla, on the latter’s birthday, celebrating his achievements, namely his victory over the Aquitanians in Gaul, the triumph he was awarded on 25 September 27 BC, his successful mission to the East, and his repair of the Via Latina (the kind of restoration work Augustus required of the well-off). The central section, describing his mission to the East, includes a hymn to the Egyptian god Osiris, who is identified with the Greek god, Bacchus, and a digression into how Bacchus invented cultivation of the vine.

In a typically useful note Maltby points out that this poem was written relatively soon after Augustus’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BC) and the couple’s suicide in 30 BC, BUT it departs from the usual fiercely negative tone of Augustan propaganda (compare it with the negative references to the ill-fated couple in the Aeneid). Maltby interprets this as calling for the peaceful integration of Egypt into the Roman imperium.

Notes: Slaves worked the fields of the Roman aristocracy chained together in chain gangs. Tibullus has the heart to call them ‘mortals in distress’ (41).

Each Roman had a guardian spirit watching over him called his Genius, who was born with him and protected him during his lifetime.

1.8 (78 lines)

There is no hiding from me what dome tender words
in whispers and a lover’s nod convey.
For me there are no lots, no livers linked to gods,
no songbirds that predict events for me…

Opens with Tibullus assuming the role of teacher of love, telling the poem’s addressee to admit to being in love, warning that cosmetics don’t work, comparing the addressee with a girl who never uses make-up but looks great. Old age is the time for make-up. What enchants is physical presence, thigh pressed against thigh. Only at line 23 do we learn that he is addressing a boy. It emerges that Tibullus is in love with a boy who is in love with the pretty girl mentioned earlier. Tibullus now tells the girl not to beg presents from the boy, but only from old admirers who can afford them. Quick now, while you are young, there’s time enough for make-up when you’re old.

No gems and pearls delight a girl who sleeps alone
and cold, and is desired by no man.

He tells her not to be tough on the boy and only now do we learn his identity, Marathus, the same boy as in 1.4, and we realise Tibullus is addressing them both as if they’re there, together, in front of him. We learn the girl is called Pholoe. He tells her to relent, pointing out that Marathus once enjoyed playing hard to get to older lovers; now the boot’s on the other foot and he himself is suffering agonises form being rejected by Pholoe.

It is a very dramatised poem, with Tibullus first addressing the boy and girl as if they’re in front of him, then handing over the narrative to Marathus. But then we’ve seen the high degree of dramatisation and multiple voices in Horace’s epistles and odes.

1.9 (84 lines)

If you were going to abuse my wretched love,
why make vows by the gods profaned in private?
O wretch, though broken oaths can be concealed at first,
the punishment still comes on muffled feet…

Closely related to 1.8, this also features Tibullus addressing lovers, in this case a boy who Tibullus is in love with (presumably the same Marathus) and an old married man who has bought the boy’s love with gifts (a recurring trope in all these love poems, the buying of love). Tibullus starts by cursing the boy for selling out to a rich lover, then kicks himself for having helped the boy so actively in his pursuit of the girl, holding a torch for him on midnight assignations, persuading the girl to come to her door to speak to the boy, and so on. He marvels that he was so naive (‘I should have been more wary of your traps’), and wrote love poems. Now he wishes Vulcan to come and burn those poems to ash.

At line 53 the narrator turns to the old married man who’s pinched him, and hopes his wife has umpteen affairs, surpassing even the licentiousness of his sister. He doesn’t realise his debauched sister taught his wife all his sexy tricks. The poet wishes the aroma of all his wife’s lovers will linger in their marital bed.

Then returns to the boy, asking him how he could sleep with such a monster, with his ‘vile, gouty flesh and elderly embraces’. The poem closes by ending the Marathus affair (‘Just get lost, you who only want to sell your looks’), saying he will take a new lover, and rejoice in the boy’s ‘torment’, and dedicate a palm to Venus in thanks for his escape. The final couplet is an actual dedication to the goddess, elegiac metre being used for real-life inscriptions.

It belongs to a recognised type in the ancient world, the ‘end of the affair’ poem (surprising that the Greeks don’t have a handy term for it).

Notes: slaves could be punished by being whipped ‘with a twisted whip’, lashing their shoulders, or branded. I am by now realising that the theme of slavery, as transposed to the trope of ‘love’s slave’ and ‘the slavery of love’, features in every poem. It is a stock trope to go alongside the conceit of love’s ‘wars’. The poet may be a warrior for love, a soldier of love, a casualty of love’s wars, or a slave for love etc.

1.10 (lines)

Who was the first to make horrific two-edged swords?
How ired and truly iron that man was!
First murder of the human race, then war was born,
then quicker ways to grisly death were opened…

Having rejected gay and straight love, the poet returns to the Roman ideal of a stable marriage. This is the last poem in the and it book picks up themes adumbrated in the first, such as rejecting war and greed in favour of the simple rural life. But now the poet finds himself being dragged off to war (we don’t know which war or when) and wishes for the lost Golden Age before war or greed were heard of. Oh how he loved scampering about under the gaze of the simple wooden household gods of his childhood! Oh let him live a simple life and dedicate simple sacrifices to the gods and let someone else ‘lay hostile leaders low’!

Half way through the poem switches to a vision of the dead in Hades, scratching their faces by the river Styx, waiting for Charon the filthy ferryman. Instead let us praise a simple farmer, such as he wants to be. There is a confusing passage when war and (apparently) sex or rape (?) intrude, before the last couplet invokes Peace, again.

So come to us while holding cornstalks, fertile Peace,
and may fruit spring from your resplendent breast.

2.1 (90 lines)

Be quiet, everyone! We’re cleansing crop and fields,
a rite still done as forebears passed it on.
Come Bacchus, and from your horns let sweet grapes hang
and, Ceres, wreath your brow with stalks of corn…

Book 2 opens with a dramatisation of a country festival. Procession to the altar of the sacred lambs, prayer to the ancestral gods, confirmation that the omens are good, toast to his patron, Messalla (‘pride of bearded ancestors’) in his absence, who he then asks to help him with the rest of the poem (as Virgil repeatedly asks Maecenas for help with his Georgics).

Then Tibullus sings a 30-line hymn in praise of the rustic gods and then the early farmers who developed the arts of agriculture. This segues into the final passage about Cupid, who was born among the beasts of the fields but quickly learned to ply his trade among humans, ah he causes much pain and sorrow. Which is why Tibullus enjoins him to lay down his bow & arrow and join the feast.

Notes: statues of the gods were often painted red, specially during festivals.

Tragic actors were awarded a goat, tragos in Greek, as a prize for their songs, which were performed in honour of Bacchus.

‘The gods are pleased by abstinence.’ Sexual abstinence was required before religious festivals.

2.2 (22 lines)

Let’s speak with joyous words; Birth-Spirit nears the altar.
Those present, male or female, hold your tongue!
Let hearths burn holy incense; let them burn perfumes
some gentle Arab sends from fruitful lands…

The shortest of the 16 elegies, this is addressed to Tibullus’s friend, Cornutus, on his birthday. Tibullus addresses Cornutus’s ‘Genius’, which probably means a statue or bust of him, brought from his house for the purpose. He (rhetorically) asks the absent Cornutus what gift he would like, then imagines Cornutus’s image nodding assent. Tibullus bets he will be praying for a wife’s true love, at which Tibullus asks Amor to come flying down and bring with him the bonds of a stable marriage. He asks the Birthday Spirit to provide Cornutus with healthy offspring.

It’s very brief and much more like a kind of fantasia or dream than the rather laboured discourses of the other elegies.

2.3 (86 lines)

Cornutus, farms and villas occupy my girl.
Alas, he who can stay in town is iron!
Venus herself has moved on now to open fields
and Love is learning rustic slang of farmers…

First of the short ‘sequence’ devoted to the new, ‘dark’ mistress, codenamed ‘Nemesis’. Whereas an idealised vision of the country is where Tibullus imagined his love for Delia, Nemesis is very much a woman of the city. The very wealth he had rejected in book 1, he now accepts if it helps him win his new, mercenary mistress.

The poem opens by addressing Cornutus. It is, in effect, a long moan to his friend. Tibullus laments that his mistress is being delayed in the country; Tibullus would do hard labour to release her; even Apollo underwent labours for his love, Admetus (11 to 36). Inevitably, he has a rival for her affections and attack on him leads into an attack on the greed of the present age (‘Our iron age applauds not love but loot of war’) and a series of lines condemning the lust for loot and the violence it motivates. And women are all too often lured by money – ‘Alas, I see that girls are thrilled by riches now.’

Only now, at line 57, do we discover the name of his mistress, ‘Nemesis’, the Greek word for retribution. Tibullus uses this technique of delaying the identity of the beloved in his poems about Delia and Marathus, obviously a stock technique to raise tension/introduce drama.

He is disgusted that his rival, her other lover, appears to be an ex-slave, one who ‘was often forced/to drag chalked feet upon a foreign scaffold’ – because (as Maltby’s excellent notes inform us) slaves on sale from abroad had their feet coated with chalk and were displayed in front of potential buyers on a temporary wooden scaffold.

Then the poem reverts to the rural setting, as he delivers 2-line curses of Ceres and Bacchus, the 2 deities most associated with the countryside, for keeping his beloved there. And he pines, not for the first time, for the Golden Age when men led simple lives, ate simple food, made love freely out of doors. The last line is a defiant claim that he will ‘never shrink from chains and lashes’ i.e. is prepared to become a slave for her sake.

2.4 (60 lines)

I see that I have gained both bondage and a mistress!
Farewell to native freedoms now for me!
Still, sadly, service is imposed and I’m in chains,
and for a wretch Love never loosens bonds,
and whether I have earned it or not sinned, it burns…

Picks up the slavery theme where 1.3 left off. The poet realises that, in acquiring a new mistress, he has put himself in bondage. He burns! He wishes he was unfeeling stone, was a cliff beaten by the sea. Poetry is useless; his mistress wants expensive gifts! If he’s not to be left whining outside her locked door he must forget poetry. Through verse he asks for access to his girl, a frequently repeated trope of the elegists – but it doesn’t work. It’s Venus’s fault, so he’ll profane her shrine. He curses the manufacturers of luxury goods for spoiling girls. He’s locked out of her house while any fool with money can bribe their way in. Then a passage bitterly cursing his beloved: may her house burn down, may she die unmourned. But then he relapses back into hopelessness: if she insists he sell his ancestral home, he’ll do it, yes and drink potions prepared by Circe or Medea, even drink the piss from a mare in heat, he’ll do it for his love!

2.5 (122 lines)

Phoebus, protect the novice entering your shrine;
come quickly to perform with song and lyre…

Tibullus’s longest poem. It is an invocation of the god Apollo in celebration of the induction of the son of his patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Messallinus, into Apollo’s priesthood. (This took place about 19 BC i.e. not very long before scholars think Tibullus himself died.) The opening couplets describing Apollo’s powers are very evocative, as is his vision of Rome before it was settled, when it was merely a few idyllic villages.

What makes the poem so long is it swiftly moves on to mention the Sibylline books (which the priests of Apollo guarded) and then retells many of the prophecies of the ancient Sibyl about:

a) the founding of Rome by Aeneas (the subject of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid), quick vignettes of Ilia and Romulus, mentions of Lavinia and Turnus, focus of the second half of the Aeneid
b) events surrounding the assassination of Caesar and the subsequent civil wars – quite extensive subjects

The poem ends with an extended description of a rural festival, in its final lines introducing the figure of Cupid who has wounded the poet who now suffers from the pangs of love. Tibullus asks mercy of Nemesis (for it is she) so that he has the strength to celebrate the great achievements of young Messalinus, envisioned as driving through conquered towns.

The notes point out that by expanding the range of subject matter of the elegy, Tibullus paved the way for Propertius to do likewise, in his book 4, and Ovid in his Fasti.

Notes: there were three types of divination in ancient Rome: augury (observation of the flight and call of birds), sortilege (casting lots) and haruspicy (examining the liver and entrails of sacrificed animals).

2.6 (54 lines)

Macer is called up. What will come of tender Love?
Be friends and bravely lug gear on his neck?

Another ‘locked out’ poem. It starts by describing the fact that this ‘Macer’ is being called up (much scholarly debate about who this is ‘Macer’ is) and is off to the wars. The poet extends a brief description of a young man off to the wars into his own situation, an embattled man in love, who cannot keep away from his beloved’s locked door.

If only love’s weapons could be destroyed. He’d have killed himself now if only cruel Hope did not assure him Nemesis will relent. He prays at the grave of Nemesis’s dead sister, that she will pity him. He blames Nemesis’s bawd or madam, named as Phryne, for locking him out, and curses her. (Shifting the blame from the beloved to her ‘bawd’ and bad advisor was a traditional trope in ‘locked out’ poems).

Greek poetry had traditionally opposed Hope and Nemesis, which adds resonance to their binary opposition here.

The last couplet of Tibullus’s last poem curses this bawd or madam, calling down the retribution of the gods on an old woman.

Juster’s translation

Juster’s translation is efficient but it doesn’t zing, not like Rolfe Humphrey’s dazzling translation of Lucretius or Peter Fallon’s brilliant translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Again and again I read couplets which I thought even I could have phrased a bit more smoothly. It’s not as baggy as Cecil Day Lewis’s translation of the Eclogues, but there’s… no… pzazz. No magic.

I swore so often not to go back to her door
yet when I swore, my wilful feet returned. (2.6)

I imagine Juster is conveying the sense accurately, and he keeps very closely to the elegiac format i.e. 6 beats in the first line of each couplet, 5 in the second, throughout. But without the roll and rise:

Whichever god gave beauty to a greedy girl,
alas, he brought much evil with the good,
and so the sobs and brawls resound; in short, it’s why
Love is a god who’s disrespected now. (2.4)

Close, but no cigar.

I praise the farm and gods of farms; with them as guides
life meant not fending hunger off with acorns. (2.1)

Accurate, efficient but…none of the surprise and joy of really wonderful poetry.

Summary

I know I’m meant to be paying attention to Tibullus’s achievement as an elegiac poet, noting his expansion of the genre, his three (tiny) sequences of poems to Delia, Nemesis and Marathus, noting the sexual fluidity of ancient Rome, noting his expansion of the genre to include the paean to his patron’s son and so on.

But it’s hard to take his descriptions of rural idyll seriously, when you know that a) he was actually a well-off aristocrat and city boy and b) from history books, that the friendly family farm described by him and Virgil and Horace had largely disappeared to be replaced by vast latifundia worked by shackled slaves.

Hard to take his complaints about this or that high-class courtesan or pretty boy playing hard to get or demanding expensive gifts, when that was the convention of the time. Hard to take his complaints against luxury very seriously, when historians tell us the 1st century BC saw unprecedented wealth pour into Rome and the lifestyles of the rich meet dizzy heights, and we know he himself was a member of the wealthy equites class.

In other words, almost all the substance of the poems is sophisticated pose and artifice. And, as so often, what I most noted was the references in every poem to slavery, to chains and shackle, to the punishments of whipping and branding (!), to the description of newly imported slaves being lined up on a wooden scaffold and auctioned off. That image, that idea, that suffering, vastly outweighs Tibullus’s fake descriptions of his own stereotyped emotions.

I take the point that there was an entire genre of poems called ‘at the door’ poems or paraklausithyrai. But whenever I think of The Door I can’t help remembering the note which says many doors of the rich had a slave shackled to them, to guard them, to prevent admission to undesirables, to call a senior servant to vet visitors, and that if this slave slipped in his duty or spoke out of turn he could be whipped, branded, beaten and, in extreme cases, have his legs broken or be crucified.


Credit

Tibullus elegies, translated by A.M Juster with notes and introduction by Robert Maltby, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

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